Monday, April 26, 2010

The 100 Calorie Fallacy

I was hungry for a little snack the other day, so I went into the pantry to scrounge for something to eat. After scanning the shelves, I decided on a small 100 calorie pack of fruit snacks. You know, the sugary jelly treat shaped like fruits and artificially flavored to taste like fruit. Yummy. When my snack attack was finally satisfied, three empty bags of fruit snacks sat in the trashcan. You heard me. Three. I had three hundred calories of fruit snacks and it was good. But it got me thinking what a racket food manufacturers have going with the low calories packs.

When you purchase a processed food item, you used to only have one choice in size—whatever the manufacturer decided. Then we saw the age of supersized packages and jumbo this and mega that. And then, at the turn of the century, we began to see low calorie packaging. Fueled by the outrage at America’s obesity incidence and prevalence, we began loudly professing to want to eat healthier and in moderation. Scared at the potential loss of business, the junk food companies schemed and created the low calorie package.

On the surface it all seems so benign. If you are trying to lose weight and want to cut your calories, you need to be able to count them first. The beauty of the 100 calorie pack is that has already been counted for you. You know exactly how much food is 100 calories. So with a balanced regimen and metered snack packs, Americans should be losing weight like crazy! But of course, we are not. In fact, both the incidence and prevalence of obesity are rising, boosting great money makers such as The Biggest Loser and Food Revolution.

What is the problem? It is obvious, is it not? We have no self control. And by “we” I mean “you”, because I clearly was able to stop at three packs of fruit snacks. Sadly, this is not so for the majority of people. We are fools to believe that a sealed package will actually keep us from our food. One hundred calories of shortbread cookies? Please. I would eat all ten packs in the box. The ploy is perfect because while the correct thing to do is to not eat any shortbread cookies at all, the manufacturer has created a false sense of security with this tiny little package. They also know full well that the odds dictate a lack of self control leading only to more consumption of their product.

That is not really a problem, though. Or at least not a new problem. Our lack of self control is well documented and best detailed by the supersize era of the 1990s. The new problem is that now you are paying more for your vice. In the past, when you purchase a king sized whatever, you knew you were paying more. More food, more money. Now you are paying more money for the same amount of food or even less food. When you buy a box of individually packaged snacks, you pay more that if you bought a simple box of snacks. For instance, a box of 100 calorie craisins may cost $3.29. An equivalent bag of craisins by weight would cost $2.39. You have just paid a dollar extra for the manufacturer to put the craisins in tiny little bags and tell you they are 100 calories worth of two bites and not worth your time to eat.

So we should by the regular bags and divvy up the food ourselves, right? If laziness and poor math skills were not our second and third best detailed traits, we would. How many people do you think you can pull off the street and calculate the weight of 100 calories of whatever if you gave them the packaging that had serving size and calories per serving? I shudder at the answer to that. But even if we did, our lack of self control would not allow us to stop at just one bag anyways. And even though we know we would eat more, we buy food packaged this way because it represents what we wish we would eat. And for craisins it will cost you a dollar. A dollar better spent even on a lottery ticket because at least you have a chance of winning. This is where the money is made. It is quite a racket. And so I have an instant millionaire idea—50 calorie packs. Do not be so surprised if you see it at your local megamart in the near future.