What Does the Calorie Count Really Mean?
Calorie counts appear routinely on the menus of more and more restaurants and on the packaging of many foods you’ll find in the store. However, more than a few studies have found that people (teens, for sure!) routinely ignore them and that calorie counts don’t help consumers make healthier food choices.
Companies and restaurants only put calorie counts on menus and food labels because they’re required to by law, but just as the terms “low fat” and “natural” have become all but meaningless when used to describe many products manufactured by global food corporations, so is the phrase “low-cal” and even calorie counts themselves being manipulated by “Big Food.”
As Gyorgy Scrinis writes in the Guardian, food companies are well aware not only that consumers pay little heed to calorie counts. In labeling this and that item “low-calorie,” companies are also taking advantage of people’s ignorance about how our bodies work:
The advertisements for the Coca-Cola campaign actually repeat the dominant public health message regarding calories, proclaiming that “all calories count, and if you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight. That goes for Coca-Cola and everything else with calories.”
The idea that “a calorie is a calorie — that all calories are the same” suggests that a calorie of sugar is the same as a calorie of carrots, and that the quality of the foods supplying these uniform calories is irrelevant when it comes to weight gain or loss.
According to this line of thinking, 100 calories of some energy drink has the same effect on your body and health as does 100 calories of carrots or 100 calories of chocolate.
However, more and more evidence is accruing that this is not the case at all, that the calories from highly processed carbohydrates (white bread, white sugar, white potatoes, beer) are processed differently by our bodies. Eating such foods actually causes both blood sugar and insulin to rise to high levels with the result that we retain fat instead of burning it off. In contrast, consuming calories from a diet of minimally processed grains, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and legumes does not result in such drastic increases in blood sugar and insulin levels; it therefore helps the body use the energy its gets from the foods a person eats more efficiently.
By focusing on consumers’ desire for low-calorie foods and at a time when the American Medical Association considers obesity to be a disease, companies can say they’re just giving the consumer what she or he wants. The focus on calories is actually diverting attention from “the ingredients, processing methods, and the overall quality of their foods,” writes Scrinis, and could even lead some to think that just eating fewer calories — rather than minding how much fat, salt and sugar they eat — can improve their health.
It pays to know that some of the low-calorie creations that food companies dreamed up in their labs have downright unpleasant results. It was some years ago that Proctor and Gamble started selling Pringles containing Olestra, a fat substitute that adds no fat, cholesterol or calories. Anyone who ate these lower-calorie snacks was also putting themselves at the risk of gastrointestinal distress in the form of diarrhea. These side effects led to Olestra not (thankfully) being widely used (though it is still found in some snacks in the grocery aisle).
As food companies create and market more and more “low-cal” products, it’s important to keep Olestra and its side effects in mind as a cautionary tale about what people are willing to sacrifice in the name of “cutting calories.” Aside from the usual advice to cut down on fat, salt and sugar and to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods, we should consider innovative practices such as reducing or eliminating all those numbers on food labels and instead creating labels that show how much you’ll have to exercise to “burn off” that latte or vegetable wrap.
In the not-too-distant past, there was no such thing as “zero calorie” food. It’s high time to stop worrying about calorie counts and focus on what is in the food we’re eating instead of playing a numbers game.
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