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Mar 10, 2012 09:48 PM

Food labels ... and the idiocy of government regulation

Take for example a can of beans.

The can itself will be labeled and measured in English units -- e.g., 16 ounce can of beans.

The nutritional data, however, will be in metrics -- e.g. 10 grams of fiber per serving.

What the fuck?

No wonder Americans are confused about their diets.

Is there any other country out there that does this?

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  1. I would pretty much doubt it.

    America is virtually alone in the world in still using pounds and ounces, in preference to metric measurements.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Harters

      How do those in most of Europe barter for pound cake? By the Euro? By the gram?

      1. re: Veggo

        We simply don't understand the concept of a pound cake. If we did, we would have invented a more esoteric name for it (altough not in a single language of course).

        We have pounds in the UK although it's the unit of currency. And we have a chain of shops called the "Pound Bakers", where everything costs £1. I'd probably be able to get a variety fo pound cakes there.

        1. re: Veggo

          Pound cake in French is something like quart quart, meaning equal amounts of the four major ingredients, flour, eggs, butter, sugar each about a pound.

      2. What is the alternative to grams/milligrams of nutrient (like fiber, sodium, etc.) per serving? It's what's commonly used in nutritional analysis of food.

        At least there's the translation in how it aligns in a more practical sense with % daily value for many things (though people may disagree with what's considered the standard for the American diet.)

        What I'm curious about is.... what would you propose? Having everything in metrics? Or having everything is English units?

        9 Replies
        1. re: 4Snisl

          Yes, that would be the logical approach, so that people don't need a conversion table to actually figure out how much sugar or fat they are getting in their food. You could even list the total amount in both ounces and ml/grams for convenience.

          1. re: 4Snisl

            What is the alternative to grams/milligrams of nutrient (like fiber, sodium, etc.) per serving?


            See here:

            1. re: ipsedixit

              Got it. Interesting article, thanks for linking it!

              I wonder if it might "silo" the US in the global food market (e.g. if our nutrient info is in units that no other country uses).

              Wondering if tablespoons, teaspoons, etc. is something you consider a more practical way to think about nutrients? I guess it is hard to "visualize" how much salt, fat and sugar you're getting by milligrams of sodium that's listed, or grams of fat, or grams of sugar (even with commonplace conversions, like 5 grams of fat= 1 teaspoon).

              Not meaning to needle you at all....just wanting to understand your perspective, as the thought to measure nutrients by volume instead of weight never occurred to me. If there's anything I'm missing, please let me know when time and inclination allows.

              1. re: 4Snisl

                No needling taken.

                I'm just throwing this out for public consumption and thought.

                Can you imagine if a bag of potato chips had on its label "2 tablespoons of fat per chip"?

                1. re: ipsedixit

                  Yep- would definitely be an eye opener for lots of people! :)

                  As full disclosure, I work in community nutrition programs, and some of the hands-on activities involve translation of weight measurements (grams, milligrams, etc. of fat, salt, sugar, etc.) into volumetric measurements, like teaspoons, tablespoons, etc. So people measure out tablespoons of shortening to "see" how much fat is in that mega-monster fast food burger, or teaspoon after teaspoon of sugar when trying to see how much sugar they are getting from a super-sized soda. (now, the bucket-sized coffee drinks are starting to make their way onto the roster.)

                  The bottom line is, I never thought about nutrition labels already doing the legwork for us by eliminating the need to convert from grams of fat to teaspoons of fat- but the idea is a compelling one for the reasons you bring up.

                  1. re: 4Snisl

                    I have seen those visual models and they are very powerful.

                  2. re: ipsedixit

                    Well, if you are an Israeli fashion model, and are not eating, that might be useful. It just depends. Otherwise, Michelle Obama will show up at your door, with Brian William, and you will be dragged to the curb.


                2. re: ipsedixit

                  I consult the gram weight of fiber all the time. I have a kitchen scale that weighs in either g or oz. I am not sure what your beef is. Grams are standard scientific measurements for weight. A tablespoon is not a unit of weight. The logical alternative to using grams would be oz. Apparently food scientists use grams, so that is what is on the package. I understand that you have a problem with that, but I wonder why?

                  1. re: ipsedixit

                    This quotation is from the WSJ article you linked:

                    "Grams are the vocabulary of scientists, not teaspoons or tablespoons, which are the vocabulary of cooks," says Mr. Belser.

                    That sums it up. "Mg" is an appropriate unit for nutritionists. "Oz" and "tsp" are appropriate units for cooks. The comment elsewhere in the article that American cooks should give up teaspoons is hilarious.

                    This is much ado about nothing, in my opinion. It looks like there is a controvery from the article because the handful of people who care about it are the ones who get into print. The vast majority just go on cooking with cups and teaspoons, and ignore the nutritional data unless they are required to keep their salt intake down.

                3. The English use a mixture of both metric and imperial. For example when the weather is hot in the UK people use Fahrenheit but when it's below zero they use Celsius. To measure length and distance they use inches/feet/yards/miles. They use ounces and pints for drinks and cooking liquids but use liters for petrol. They use pounds and stone for weighing themselves but use kilograms and grams for weighing food in supermarkets.

                  If you think Americans are confused then imagine how the English must feel.

                  @Harters: I may be wrong but I think that a lot of the "English-rooted" countries have this sort of problem.

                  @4Snisl: In my opinion if the rest of the world uses metrics then everything should be in metrics really.

                  16 Replies
                  1. re: iliria

                    I have a theory that the imperial measurements are more accurate in terms of space-time. Imperial measurement is divisible by 6. Spacetime is measured by minutes and hours. Which are divisible by 6.

                    Think of it.

                    1. re: iliria

                      It's not just the English, the rest of the United Kingdom still seems to struggle with metric. Weather is now pretty much measured in Celsius. Food weights and measures are all metric - although you will still get folk asking for, say, half a pound of ham - and the shop only has metric scales. I happily ask for 250g and get the more accurate sale.

                      I measure everything in metric - except myself ( 5' 8" tall, and weighing 16st 5lbs - yes, I'm a short, fat man)

                      1. re: Harters

                        as you say the Brits also buy petrol in litres but the car gets confused because it does x miles to the gallon!
                        you can still buy your beer in pints but liquor is sold in metric measures and so is wine.

                        We Brits are excellent at conversions but I still bake in Imperial measures and if following a metric recipe I have to convert back to imperial to be able to visualize the ingredients especially if I am going to make some additions or changes. Then again British and American cups and some imperial measurements are different for example the gallon is smaller in the US.

                        1. re: smartie

                          Speaking of British vs American measurements like pints being different...
                          I once got into a big fight with my mother over how many cups there are in a pint. I was on the phone with her, yelling over 3,500 miles of ocean that a pint is TWENTY ounces not sixteen, I'm looking right at the cup! She thought for a minute and said "Honey, did you buy a British measuring cup?"

                          No wonder my recipes were messed up.

                          1. re: smartie

                            Hey smartie - I always do my envisaging thing by way of a bag of sugar - that's 1kg or 2lbs.

                            1. re: Harters

                              ummm.... no. Thats 1kg or 2.2lbs! '-)

                          2. re: Harters

                            6' tall and 19st. I dont do much better. :) I blame those pies misses and I have been cooking recently (Hairy Bikers' Pie Book and Malgieri's Bake!) ;)

                            1. re: iliria

                              But, what is your weight in "stones?"

                              If you are in the US, and have had the Gov. mandated chip implanted in your head, someone will know - stones, or pounds, and the "Calorie Police" WILL show up at your door. You will likely be sent to a camp, to teach you how much you should weigh.

                              Just wait,


                              1. re: Bill Hunt

                                There are enough true conspiracies in the US, there's really no need to gin up fake ones.

                                1. re: escondido123

                                  Well just wait. You will not be laughing THEN...

                                  BTW, have you gotten the schedule for the implantation of YOUR chip?


                          3. re: iliria

                            We Americans did manage to lose a $125 million spacecraft for failing to distinguish between metric vs non-metric units about 10 yrs ago.

                            1. re: racer x

                              It wasn't "we Americans" who did that, it was Lockheed-Martin specifically, and the issue there was poor training and quality control. The space program uses metric units, but someone, somewhere didn't get the memo and there was no check to catch the mistake.

                              1. re: racer x

                                When I was a kid NASA invented a pen for use in space that did not rely upon gravity to work - It cost a fortune to develop and was briefly available in stores in an effort to recoup the cost.

                                The Russian space program used pencils.

                                EDIT: Wikipedia claims this to be an urban legend. Good story, anyway. Bless the wiki for taking the fun out of things.....

                                  1. re: paulj

                                    Yes, the pens were made...just not in the dramatic way of the "urban legend".

                            2. All my cans of beans are labeled in metric, variously 425 or 439 gm.

                              Not that I ever have to relate the gm of xxx per serving to the total gm per can. gm/serving are most useful when comparing one product with another. However, you do have to pay attention to the size of serving. That's not as standardized as it could be. But that has nothing to do with the mix of units.

                              1. It would be interesting to know how much of the difference in labels/measurements is because manufacturers/marketers like to keep it confusing....maybe the discussion should be about the idiocy of business unwilling to give clear information rather than the idiocy of government regulation....follow the money.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: escondido123

                                  Can size is a matter of history (15oz has been common for a long time), tweaked as manufacturers downsize. And American customers are used to seeing oz measures - though many things also have a metric measure as well. I suspect that the use of grams on the nutrition label is per government regulation (i.e. what nutritional information they must show, and how).

                                  1. re: paulj

                                    No doubt, and the difference doesn't matter because no consumer ever relates the metric nutritional information (most of which is percentages, anyway) to the volume or weight of the can. If it is used, it is in connection with something external to the recipe at hand. For example, I might want to know whether the sodium content is high or low compared to another brand. Mg is the most convenient unit for this, and the marking of the can weight doesn't enter into the problem. It's just a "small" or a "large" can, anyway.