I have had a startling number of clients hounded by debt collectors over credit cards used primarily for groceries. As of last year, US Today estimated that it costs between $7,592 and $15,028 a year to feed a family of four. Food is a major and necessary expense, a tremendous source of consumer spending, and I'd like consumers to get it right. This week's post is going to talk all about it.
Here is the nutrition label for a can of Coca-Cola:
This label format appears on the back of just about every item in the grocery store. Shoppers, either habitually or when feeling particularly nutrition-minded, flip the box or jar over and scan this for red flags. Because grams are a meaningless measurement to most of us, we rely primarily on the "% Daily Values" listed to make our decisions. By that metric, a single can of Coca-Cola seems relatively harmless. An average adult diet is somewhere north of 2,000 calories a day, so 140 calories per can is acceptable. Ditto the low sodium, lack of fat or cholesterol-- heck, it's even only 13% of your carbohydrate intake needed in a day! A can of Coke seems like a downright modest splurge-- and even drinking one or two a day wouldn't be the end of the world.
Do you notice anything missing from this label?
Excluding Trans Fat, which was added only in the last few years, look at the whole chart. Where is the "% Daily Value" for sugar? Sugar, especially added sugar, metabolizes into fat almost instantly, messes with insulin levels, and causes tooth decay to boot.
Sugar is the elephant in the room of the food industry, the hands-down largest factor in the obesity epidemic, and a major contributor to the meteoric increase in health care costs nationwide. If you go to the grocery store and buy a standard, early 21st century selection of American groceries, even one that leans health-conscious, you are going to eat and drink, as a matter of course, several times the daily recommended intake of sugar.
The FDA website says that "No daily reference value has been established for sugars because no recommendations have been made for the total amount to eat in a day," which suggests that there is no data on sugar consumption. To be clear, there is significant data on healthy sugar consumption. The FDA's statement is actually a lie/neologism, better worded as: "the FDA does not make a recommendation because no recommendation has been made by the FDA." Because the FDA has curiously omitted sugar consumption recommendations from its labeling requirements, here are a few recommendations:
American Heart Association: 25g/day for woman and 37g/day for men
Mayo Clinic: 25g/day for woman and 37g/day for men
World Health Organization: 25g/day
This puts a rather insidious spin on that can of Coca-Cola, which is more than 100% of the recommended daily sugar intake for an adult male. But there are bigger problems than just soda (and snacks and candy and ice cream and cakes, etc.), because sugar is added to e-ver-y-thing. There is added sugar in cereal, oatmeal, spaghetti sauce, barbecue sauce, canned fruit, juice, tea, energy drinks, granola bars, baking mixes, yogurt, almost all frozen foods, ketchup, dried fruit, protein bars, salad dressing, crackers -- seriously, everything-- enough products that even a seemingly-balanced diet contains many times the recommended intake of sugar. Not a little over: many times! For those who didn't know this before, it's almost a certainty: you eat several times the recommended amount of sugar. This maybe starts to explain why the FDA leaves that number off the chart.
So, here is the aforementioned Public Service Announcement to consumers: when looking at the amount of sugar in a service, divide the number of grams by 4. That is the number of teaspoons of sugar in each serving. If you wouldn't sit down and eat that many teaspoons of sugar out of a bag, don't buy it.
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