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When Food + Label = Fable

For better health, we should ignore the fable--and maybe even avoid the label. After all, just because it comes in a package doesn't make it a gift and fresh whole foods are always preferable to highly processed items.
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Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced an overhaul to the Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods. The most prominent change on the new label—the one now garnering a giant font size and bold typeface—relates to calories. The FDA believes that clearer calorie labeling is critical to helping consumers make healthier choices.

The problem is that the number of calories in a product is not really the issue for consumer health. In fact, focusing on calorie counts in packaged foods could lead to less-healthful choices and poorer health overall.

To understand, keep in mind that a calorie is merely a unit of energy. One calorie of energy equals one calorie of energy just as one unit of anything equals another unit of the same anything. Quantitatively, a calorie’s worth of nuts is the same as a calorie’s worth of cake.

But two different foods having the same number of calories will not necessarily produce the same results when it comes to health for consumers. Qualitatively, nut calories and cake calories are quite different.

Different foods have different effects based on the types of calories they contain—that is, the specific composition of calorie-providing components (fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and alcohol) that comprise them, along with other components (e.g., fiber and water) in the mix.

Depending on the composition of various components, different foods will have different effects on hunger and fullness, fat burning and fat storage, and energy consumption and expenditure.

While overall calorie intake (for the day; over time) is important, for a given packaged food, it is not the number of calories that matter as much as the type. Higher-calorie foods in packages do not necessarily mean higher calorie intake overall for the day, and lower-calorie foods in packages do not necessarily mean an overall lower calorie intake.

The FDA seems not to recognize this fact, now boldly highlighting the number of calories on Nutrition Facts labels to promote “healthier” (i.e. lower-calorie) product choices.

The new labels will incentivize production and consumption of lower-fat items; fat being the dietary component with by far the greatest density of calories (9 per gram, compared to alcohol’s 7, and carbohydrate’s and protein’s 4). To make calories lower, fat generally has to go.

Yet while fattier items are definitely higher in calories, this fact alone does not make them objectionable or unhealthful. Similarly, while low-fat items are lower in calories, this fact does not make them nutritionally desirable or health-promoting.

Some high-calorie fatty foods promote leaner, healthier, longer lives. Conversely, some products that are low if fat are detrimental to wellness.

Compare a fatty, high-calorie whole food (walnuts), with a processed lower-calorie product (box cake). In the contest between a handful of walnuts and a piece of cake, the nuts will have almost twice as many calories with more than five times as much fat. A focus on calories would make the walnuts seem like the decidedly unhealthy choice.

Of course, this assessment is ridiculous. Even though a handful of walnuts may have more calories than a piece of cake, the walnuts will be more filling, will work against additional consumption later in the day, and will help keep overall calorie intake lower. Plus, nuts promote overall better health and healthier weights and may even help extend life (regardless of their calories and maybe even because of their fats).

Conversely, refined products like cake drive hunger and promote continued eating.

It’s hard to gorge on walnuts, which are full of healthy fats, protein, and fiber; you get pretty full pretty quickly. It’s very easy to have a second (or even third) piece of cake—full of added sugars and refined starches—and to crave other refined-carbohydrate products like chips or soda with it.

But what about a contest between, say, regular box cake and a low-fat/lower-calorie version? Certainly that must be the type of change the FDA is trying to incentivize. The lower-calorie version—with the smaller calorie count—must be healthier, right?

Definitely not. In fact, as higher-calorie fats get swapped out for lower-calorie starches and/or sugars (the standard strategy for making lower-calorie packaged foods like low-fat cake), the result could be an even less healthful product. Products like low-fat cake, full of refined starches and added sugars, almost literally program us to overeat, and to continue to eat the wrong kind of things (i.e. more refined starches and sugars). These products convincingly promote obesity and related diseases like diabetes.

The FDA should understand that focusing on calories is not a focus on health. In fact, the calorie label is very much a fable when it comes to health; a falsehood, suggesting a story not grounded in fact.

For better health, we should ignore the fable—and maybe even avoid the label. After all, just because it comes in a package doesn’t make it a gift and fresh whole foods are always preferable to highly processed items.

As I have expressed to the leaders at Epicure—a company for which I consult that produces packaged foods, but with a dedication to consumer empowerment and to healthy cooking and eating—low-calorie does not equal healthy, low-fat does not make us fit. For leaner bodies and better health, we should choose ingredients from living botanical plants (e.g. nuts) not industrial processing plants (e.g., refined starches and sugars).

Real, minimally processed food is healthful irrespective of its calories and fat. Choose real foods, and healthy calorie intake and better health will follow, naturally.

No fable. True story. Eat real, and live happily ever after.