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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: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001...

            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.

                                2. When I was in the eighth grade we had a unit on the metric system in math class because the U.S. was going to convert to the metric system "any day now." One assignment was to find dual-measurements on packaged goods from the supermarket. Even back then it was a fairly easy task, as most things were so labeled. It's been a long time since that class in 1965 and I am waiting for the Big Day to arrive.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: al b. darned

                                    As an official, all encompassing change, it isn't going to happen. But selectively industries have gone metric. Nearly all science is metric. Nuts and bolts on my car are metric. Tire sizes are semi-metric (215mm/70%/16"). Medications are metric.

                                    When cooking, if I'm measuring by weight, I'm as likely to be using gm as oz, depending in part on the recipe source. Many of my measuring cups and even spoons include metric measure.

                                  2. Nutritional data and other medical values are in metric. I guess I've become used to metric amounts.

                                    Using volumetric measurements, teaspoons, can be a problem since 1 teaspoon of sugar weights differently than 1 teaspoon of fat.

                                    However, volume is good at visualizing large amounts. For example, a 20 ounce bottle of Pepsi contains about 65 grams of sugar. That works out to an equivalent of 1/3 cup of table sugar.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: dave_c

                                      However, volume is good at visualizing large amounts. For example, a 20 ounce bottle of Pepsi contains about 65 grams of sugar. That works out to an equivalent of 1/3 cup of table sugar.

                                      Imagine if that was put on every 20 oz bottle of Pepsi? People would probably do a double take if they realized that it contained a 1/3 cup of sugar.

                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                        This Zone diet site in Australia is attempting to get you to do a double take:

                                    2. The FDA keeps changing the requirements for the label and it has meant that some good stuff does not get imported anymore. Mayordomo mole comes to mind. The BEST commercially made mole and we cannot buy it in the good ol' USA anymore. They refuse to change the label. So if you want the best mole I have ever eaten, go to Oaxaca or find someone traveling there. Glad I know someone and glad the stuff keeps about forever.

                                      1. I think it is because the USA is I think the only industrialized nation that doesn't mainly use metric in daily life, especially for weights and volumes. But because of the international requirements of sharing science, health and research data, all of that is done in metric. Nutritional info falls under the health category. Like what DaveC says above.
                                        I am conversant with temperature in Celcius, distance in kilometers, but as most of our recipes and magazines come from the USA, volumes and weights are listed in Imperial, hence my familiarity with tsp/tbsp/cups and so on. However, I do prefer recipes that list weights instead of volumes (i.e. 450g flour vs say 3 cups) as they are more accurate (baking primarily). Funnily enough, I still weigh myself in pounds and have no idea about body weight in Kilos. Forget about stones LOL (sorry Smartie!)...

                                        1. Ipse, I don't really get what your beef is. The nutritional labeling gives info in terms of serving size and provides an approximate number of servings per package. The 16 oz is beside the point once you are dealing with the nutritional data - just focus on serving sizes and number of servings.

                                          16 Replies
                                          1. re: racer x

                                            Here's the thing.

                                            You have in your hand a can of beans, for example, and it's labeled "16 oz".

                                            Then you turn it around to the back, and the nutritional label has "5 grams of fat per serving". Even if you figure out the total grams of fat by the number of servings in the can, you are still left with some numerical number in grams.

                                            So lets say there are 2 servings, and you have a total of 10 grams of fat. Visually the typical "American consumer" has very little notion of what "10 grams" of anything looks like.

                                            That consumer knows what a tablespoon of fat looks like -- certainly more so than a gram would look like.

                                            And given that the consumer is holding 16 ounces in his hand (i.e. the can of beans), wouldn't it make more sense if the nutritional label had "ounces" of fat or some other English-equivalent?

                                            1. re: ipsedixit

                                              Doesn't the can also list the weight in grams? All mine do. It's roughly 450gm

                                              We learned from grade school that 1kg = 2.2 lb,
                                              or 1lb = 1000 gm/kg / 2.2 lb/kg = a bit less than 500 gm

                                              But does 10 gm of fat in a 450 gm can help?

                                              The 9grain bread that I like lists 2gm of fiber per slice. At 17 slices per 24oz/680gm loaf, that means 34 gm fiber per loaf. Does that help? Why not compare the 2gm fiber to the 16gm total carbs, and 4gm protein (per slice)? Without looking at other packages I don't know whether that level is exceptional or not.

                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                But it also says percentage of calories from fat so if it says 20% of calories from fat means one fifth of the can is fat...I don't find that particularly hard to understand.

                                                1. re: escondido123

                                                  What labels list % of calories from fat? Most labels I see list "total calories" and "calories from fat", so to get "percent of calories from fat", you'd have to make a fraction from the two.

                                                  Maybe you are referring to % daily value, which makes calculations based on a 2,000 calorie diet, not the calories in any particular food....?

                                                  1. re: 4Snisl

                                                    That fraction is easy enough (calories from fat/total calories). I suspect that a person who has trouble with that fraction, also has trouble comprehending percentages, or making comparisons across products. They can spoon feed consumers only so much nutritional information - beyond that they need to do a little math on their own.

                                                    1. re: 4Snisl

                                                      Thanks for the heads up, you are absolutely right. I've been reading that part of the label all wrong for a very long time. Luckily I eat few prepared foods so it's not a big deal for me. I guess it makes more sense to look at the ratio between calories/calories from fat. I've got a jar of Mole in front of me with 160 per serving/100 from fat.....that means more than half the jar is fat...that's a lot higher number that the 17% of Daily Value. Well, they are coming out with new labels in 2012 will have to see what happens. I've heard they will be giving numbers for the whole container rather than serving size which can vary by maker.

                                                      1. re: escondido123

                                                        I don't think that 160 calories per serving/100 calories from fat means that more than half the jar is fat. I think that every gram of fat has 9 calories. Every gram of most carbs and protein have 4 calories.
                                                        Think of it this way. A serving of potato chips weighs 28 grams. It has 10 grams of fat. The calories from fat are 90 (10 grams of fat x 9 calories/gram). The total calories in the serving is 155. Of the total 155 calories, 90 are from fat meaning that 60 percent of the calories per serving is from fat. However, 10 grams of the total 28 grams of potato chips are fat, meaning that 38 percent of the potato chip mass is fat. 60 percent of the calories are from fat: 38 percent of the bag is fat.
                                                        By your reasoning, 155 calories per serving/90 from fat would mean that 60 percent of the bag is fat, and it isn't by mass. 38 percent of the bag is fat by mass.
                                                        I don't think you can look at the ratio of fat:calories and extrapolate that to a volume or mass measurement.
                                                        Hopefully a nutritionist can sort this out, as I may be wrong.

                                                        1. re: escondido123

                                                          What else is in the mole? Peppers, spices, some bread or cracker crumbs, maybe a bit of sugar. The fat (oil) is the most concentrated source of calories, so, yes, it is contribute the most, even if quantity wise it is fairly far down the ingredients list.

                                                          "Chile peppers, oil, sugar, sesame seeds, cocoa beans, bananas, onions, raisins, walnuts, almonds, peanuts, cinnamon, bread, salt, garlic, spices." Mayordomo list

                                                          fat sources: oil, sesame seeds, cocoa beans, walnuts, almonds, peanuts
                                                          carb sources: sugar, bananas, raisins, bread

                                                          Think about a home made gravy - 2T drippings, 2T flour, 1c stock or water, flavorings. Most of the calories come from the drippings and flour, and since they are in equal volume measures, the calories from fat will be more than half. You would have to switch to a starch slurry thickener if you want to eliminate the calories from fat.

                                                          1. re: paulj

                                                            Still thinking about this...if I mix 1 cup of oil and add it to 9 cups of water in a jug, 100 percent of the calories are from fat, but 1/10th of the jug is fat.

                                                            1. re: paulj

                                                              fyi the order of ingredients on a prepared food label is not by volume, it is by weight. so if something contains an equal volume of flour & veg oil, for example, the oil will be listed first-- it is heavier.

                                                              1. re: soupkitten

                                                                Good point.

                                                                So the use of gm in the nutritional part, and oz (plus gm) in the jar label, is a minor point when you think how confused people can get mixing and matching mass, volume and calorie measures.

                                                            2. re: escondido123

                                                              Glad it hasn't been an issue for you, escondido! Especially in working with people who have diabetes, I've seen so many times when issues with reading labels has caused serious health problems.

                                                              For the mole, it sounds like more that half of the calories in the jar come from fat, not necessarily that half of the jar by volume is fat. This is where the difference in caloric density really comes into play- 1 tablespoon of oil (fat) has 100 calories, yet 1 tablespoon of water has 0 calories. That's why half the calories coming from fat doesn't necessarily mean that half of the volume is fat.

                                                              The 17% Daily Value is based on the estimate that if you need a 2,000 calorie diet, you should be getting about 65 grams of fat per day. All % daily values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

                                                              So to break it down, it sounds like 100 calories are coming from fat. Since each gram of fat contains about 9 calories, the 100 calories from fat translates to about 11 grams of fat per serving. 11 grams of fat is about 17% of the 65 grams of fat estimated as an allotment for a 2,000 calorie daily diet. (11 divided by 65 is about 0.17, or 17%)

                                                              Anyway, I was working out the numbers for myself, and figured it was worth posting for anyone interested. Hope it explains how the number of calories from fat in a single food relates to the % daily value on the same nutrition facts label.

                                                              1. re: 4Snisl

                                                                Even though it isn't literally more than half the jar volume wise, I don't think it is a bad way to look at it in the sense of most of what you're eating is fat. That image does make it a little less appealing, which might help to keep portion size in check.

                                                                1. re: escondido123

                                                                  I suspect the mole in question is a concentrate, that is diluted with chicken stock. And if it is the fancier Mexican product, much of that fat is from nuts. When dealing with condiments and sauces it's debatable whether low fat is desirable or not. Mayo is nearly all fat, various iterations of Miracle Whip reduce the fat, and up the carbs (sugar or starch).

                                                        2. re: ipsedixit

                                                          No, it wouldn't make sense. Most nutrients are not present in most foods in quantities close to an ounce. It'd be harder to use and remember fractions of an ounce. And the average person is a hell of a lot more familiar with grams than they are with imperial units smaller than an ounce. Imagine: "This bowl of cereal has 18 drams of fiber per serving, and 4 pennyweights of vitamin A. Um, is that a lot?"

                                                          The numbers only mean anything to people conversant in nutrition anyway -- how many members of the public have any idea what and appropriate intake of saturated fat is in teaspoons per day? And those of us who have some knowledge would be massively inconvenienced by having to convert ounces -- or worse yet some volumetric measures -- into grams. "Let's see, what's the density of sugar again? And what's the density of fat?"

                                                          1. re: Exy00

                                                            Exactly. Everything you just said. I'm used to grams of fiber per serving even though I'm a rather typical American familiar with pounds for my daily life.

                                                      2. It seems to me that you are asking for more regulations, not fewer. European countries probably mandate metric sizes, whereas the US does not. The packages on my shelf are marked for size in dual units. Beets: 15 oz (425 g), tomatoes: 14.5 oz (411 g), rice: 16 oz (1 lb) 453 g. Nutritional data are in percentages and grams (or mg). I'm not confused by this, don't know anyone who is, and think that anyone who is confused by metric units must have been sleeping through school and needs a remedial course.

                                                        3 Replies
                                                        1. re: GH1618

                                                          Still confused my metrics, I was probably goofing around in class and I've decided from now on out to just let me husband handle the metric conversions since he's got them memorized to a couple decimal points...my memory is saved for pop culture references that he has no idea of. When we bake we do use a scale and the recipes are in grams so at least I can use them in a practical way.

                                                          1. re: escondido123

                                                            When do you actually have to do metric conversions in a recipe? There are thousands of English system cookbooks.

                                                            1. re: GH1618

                                                              I know there are "thousands of English system cookbooks" and that's what I cook from. I'm an America living in the USA. My husband has a bread recipe that he's worked on for years and he's always used weight for it and grams were the easiest to tinker with so now that's what it it.

                                                        2. I don't understand. What does the size of a can have to do with anything? If you want to read a label and understand it you're usually going to be either counting out units or measuring or relating how much you ate to how many servings are in a package anyway. If I'm carefully measuring out one serving of cereal so I know how many calories I'm consuming, it's of no relevance to me whether the weight of the whole box is labeled in ounces or grams.

                                                          1. I don't get the connection between the per-serving nutritional information and the size of the container. It's not confusing to me at all because they relate to two completely different things-the total package weight and the per serving portions. I guess if they were both in ounces, I could figure out what percentage of the package was made up to by fat or whatever, but to what end? I really just care about what is in the serving I plan on eating, and how this compares to other products I might be considering instead. Grams work just fine, and frankly are easier than the percentages of ounces you would have to use for most dietary information. If you don't like government regulation at all, a lot of things are probably going to chafe at you. But this is easily used by people who care to use it, and people who don't aren't suddenly going to become interested in doing so because the fiber is now listed in ounces.

                                                            1. Well, I knew that the US Gov regulated labels would lead to issues, when I saw a bottle of wine, with a Gov mandated disclaimer, reading "Consumption of alcohol can lead to pregnancy." Hey, I knew that from back in high school, and that was many decades ago. All of the girls in my high school understood to, and just said "No!"

                                                              Wise move on their parts, and who needed the US Gov to tell them?