The Myth of the Calorie Count

Elizabeth S. Bennett   April 20, 2010

Content without context can mislead even the savviest sandwich eater. (image via bitchcakes)

A friend recently told me that he sometimes eats a breakfast sandwich made by a popular national coffee purveyor. After describing the amazing meltiness of the savory ham and egg package, he joyfully added, “And it’s only 370 calories!”

He knew this because the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has made it mandatory for the afore mentioned coffee purveyor– and other large food chains– to display the caloric content of its foodstuffs in a location readily available to customers.  My friend, a smart, educated, food-loving sort, made the calorie pronouncement in a boastful tone, as if to say, “It may sound unhealthy, but it’s actually not too bad.” Because I’m not a complete killjoy, I didn’t immediately point out that while the one number – 370 –  is important and provides some value, especially in distinguishing the sandwich from its display-case neighbors, like oatmeal without toppings (140 calories) and double iced cinnamon role (490 calories), the calorie count isn’t the only or even the most important number at issue, at least for many people.  And in isolation, it only tells a piece of the nutrition story. However, its singular presence imbues 370 with a meaning and degree of importance that exceeds its actual value. Remember fat, salt and sugar? What are they, chopped liver? Okay, you get the point.

What we’re talking about here is content without context. Information that seems meaningful by virtue of its presence. In fact, using a sandwich’s calorie count as a sole representation for nutritional value is the equivalent of, say, examining a single paint layer in a Jackson Pollack painting. Yes, it’s crucial and contributes to the meaning of the overall piece. But without the other layers, it’s so many drips of color.

It’s terrific that Mayor Bloomberg and the Board of Health are tackling the issues of health and obesity. Posting calorie counts is a great start in what I can only hope is a long-term concerted effort to support people to eat more healthfully. However, unless customers visit the coffee purveyor’s website, they lack key information that rounds out the health picture, namely–in the case of the ham and cheese sammie–total fat: 16g, calories from fat: 150g, and sodium: 730g. Further, they would have to visit a different site to find the recommended daily allowances of these nutritional components.

In the case of calorie posting, food establishments have little incentive to provide information or context beyond the mandates of municipal agencies, but the case of the melty breakfast sandwich raises some important questions that all businesses should be asking as they create, publish, curate and disseminate mountains of information each year:

  • Are customers/visitors/readers truly better off with the information they’re being served up?
  • Does available content tell a whole, partial or misleading story?

It’s hard to be perfect in this arena, but asking the above questions in both broad and narrow contexts will get you some of the way there.

Content without context can mislead even the savviest sandwich eater.

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