To find proof of why the government needs to force food labels to list “teaspoons” instead of “grams” of sugar, Marlene Schwartz set off in the aisles of Romeo & Cesare.
Schwartz—who runs Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity—had just finished holding a press conference Tuesday in front of the popular Orange Street gourmet grocery with New Haven U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Connecticut U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. She praised a letter the pair wrote to the Food & Drug Administration urging that new labeling rules require plainer and more honest wording so people can avoid poisoning themselves. (Click here to read the letter.) Their suggestions included requiring, for instance, that food companies list the amount of added sugar in a product in teaspoons, not grams, so people can get a true grasp of how much obesity- and diabetes-causing added sugar they’re swallowing.
After the press conference, Schwartz agreed to enter the grocery to demonstrate the pernicious packaging the trio targeted.
It wasn’t easy. Not in a store where aisles look like this ...
... and this.
Schwartz made her way to the back and finally seized a piece of evidence: a 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola.
She took a look (as shown in the video at the top of this story)—and offered the soda manufacturer props for placing a prominent calorie count on the front of the label.
Then she noted the calorie count: 240.
“Two hundred and forty calories,” Schwartz said, “is a lot.”
The subject at hand, anyway, was grams versus teaspoons. She read the label: 65 grams of sugar. Hmmm… How does that sound?
Not nearly as off-putting, she said, as 16 teaspoons of sugar. Which is roughly what the 65 grams equal.
“It’s as if you’re handing your a child a glass of water and sitting there with a sugar bowl and teaspoon and putting in 16 teaspoons,” Schwartz remarked. (Coca-Cola did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
Schwartz’s center has surveyed people on the subject. They’re inevitably “shocked,” she said, to learn how many teaspoons, as opposed to grams, of sugar are piled into their soft drinks.
“Parents really want to make good choices for their children,” Schwartz said. She cited a survey in which parents identified one to two teaspoons of sugar as the appropriate amount of sugar to put in their kids’ drinks, not realizing six or seven (or higher) is the more common number.
At the press conference, Blumenthal argued that more people will make “smart choices” about what to feed themselves and their kids if they get better information. “Americans don’t know what grams are,” he argued. He said the issue matters because obesity has become an “epidemic” in America, along with attendant diseases like diabetes. Some one-third of American children are obese, he said. DeLauro said that 12 states have adult obesity rates over 30 percent, as of 2010. She said the recommended daily maximum amount of sugar men should eat is nine teaspoons, women, six teaspoons; the average American consumes more like 23 teaspoons.
Blumenthal’s and DeLauro’s letter was prompted by changes in food labeling recently proposed by the FDA. (Read them here.) They applauded the FDA’s proposal to require labels to include a count of added sugars. But in addition to seeking the measurements in teaspoons rather than grams, they called for including guidelines of recommended daily intake. They also called for putting nutritional labels on the front, not the back, of packages; using more readable fonts; disclosing amounts of caffeine; and more rigorously defining “whole wheat,” “natural” and “healthy.”
Back in the less-completely-healthful rear of the Romeo & Cesare oasis, Marlene Schwartz opened the freezer to retrieve a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream. She found more misleading labeling: a “serving size” of half a cup.
No wonder a “serving” is only 260 calories.
“Those of you who have measuring cups at home, take out a half a cup and you tell me how often” you eat only that much in a Ben & Jerry’s “serving,” Schwartz said. She said her center’s research said that a typical serving is clearly larger. Some people eat the whole pint!
Her solution: Have the FDA require companies to adjust serving sizes to reflect reality. Specifically, any time research shows a true serving size to be 100 percent larger than the listed serving size.
And the sugar in the Ben & Jerry’s?
Per listed “serving,” the ice cream contains 27 grams. A more realistic single-cup serving, then would contain 54 grams. Or more than 13 teaspoons.
That’s “fine, if you want to have a small serving of Ben & Jerry’s [be your] ‘dessert of the day,’” Schwartz advised. How to limit your serving to a cup? Schwartz recommended dividing the pint up with three friends.