QT 21 - You are What You Eat

QT 21 - You are What You Eat

Hello, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophe Quick-Tips, where your host and friend Jon O’Guin tries to explain the myriad minutiae of food facts to the people without sounding as boring as Professor Binns. (Ooooh. Deep Harry Potter jokes up in here, Son.) Today’s topic is particularly difficult, and more than a little dry, and was chosen solely because Jon saw an cool packaging trick: Today, we’re going to talk about Nutritional Information and Food Labeling in general! WAIT, PLEASE DON’T GO. I promise there will be funny stuff! Maybe a goat! C’mon, give it a shot.

Look, a goat! I’m already delivering on my promises, making me better than 98% of Politicians!

Still here? Cool, let’s dive on in.

Layin’ Down The Law

Let’s get the first thing out of the way: what shows up on food packaging is, surprisingly, quite serious business.

Quite Serious indeed.

In the United States alone, there are more than 24 Federal Acts and rulings that govern what you HAVE to put on the package, what you CAN’T, and what you SHOULD. For instance, in 1924, the United States Supreme Court heard the case “United States v. Ninety-Five Barrels Alleged Apple Cider Vinegar”, where they ruled that, and this is the actual court ruling, that “Apple Cider Vinegar” is mislabeled if it’s made from dried apples. Riveting Stuff. Legal footnote: that ruling was made by the court featuring both Oliver Wendell Holmes AND William Howard Taft, both huge names in the world of Supreme Court Justices. Taft is, of course, the only man to have been President AND Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Oliver Wendell Holmes is the reason we note that free speech doesn’t allow you to “yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater”. Those are his words. Both men are presumably less proud of their decisive Apple Cider Vinegar stance.

Though, to be fair, Holmes has the look of a man with opinions about vinegar.

But yes, food labeling is important enough that the Supreme Court has had to step in several times. And if you’ve lived in America for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with this little doodad:

This minor thingamajig, this teensy doohickey, this miniscule apparatus…

That’s the Nutrition Facts box, and it is legally required on almost all packaged foods sold in America, especially those sold retail. Now, I’m not gonna break this down line by line, because, to be frank, you should know most of what it means just based on middle school health class. Calories are energy, Fat is bad, Fiber good, etc etc. However, I was motivated to write this entire post based on one company’s use of their box. See, you HAVE to write in most of the information that shows up in these boxes. However, the company that makes Peas Please took it an extra step.

They included a “You are here” marker?

Those arrows were something of a revelation for me. See, as with most things you HAVE to do, most companies put in the minimum effort, like how few 4th graders actually built something that would protect their eggs in the annual egg-drop. (That’s a common thing, right? Teachers throw eggs off of school roofs to the delight and dismay of their students? God I hope so, because if not, that’s a real hard thing to explain.) But Peas Please makes a big play: They actively draw your attention to the things they’re good at. Most snack foods desperately try to ensure you DON’T read the nutritional info, but they openly called you to it!

Which isn’t to say they’re totally in the clear. In terms of raw nutrition, while they do have strong points, there are trade-offs. They have more fat and calories than a comparable serving of Pretzel Crisps, for instance, though they have less sodium, more fiber, and more protein…

Of course, even sweetened Rice Cakes are better than both, but at that point, why not just starve?

And that line of thought, right there, is one of the reasons WHY I’m super excited by their packaging. If we’re being brutally honest, most Americans have little to no desire to think about their foods in a critical fashion. Let’s take a look at a quintessential American junk-food: The Big Mac. A single Big Mac has 44% of your daily allotment of fat and 40% of your daily sodium at just over ¼ your daily calorie allotment. It’s not a super great meal. But you know what it also has? It’s an Excellent source of Iron, and Calcium, and a Good Source of Vitamin A. Those aren’t bad numbers. Heck, take off the Big Mac Sauce, and you cut 1/4 of the Sodium, and 1/3 of the fat; without the sauce, the Big Mac is actually within spitting distance of being healthy.

This from a burger rarely in spitting distance of looking like its glamour shots.

It’s this nuance, and thought, that just weighs on the average consumer’s mind. Which thing is better, which numbers are best?  These are questions they don’t want to have to consider after a long day at work. They want to know if a thing is Good or Bad. And that’s where I think the Peas Please packaging does itself a great favor: it converts the dry black and white of the Nutition Facts, a box most Americans’ eyes glaze over as they try to decipher and says “Here, right here. This is what makes me good for you!” But in so doing, they remind us: those numbers have meaning. So you look at this bold arrow point out how great their Iron is, and you glance at the next bag to see how MUCH better it is, and soon you’re inspecting all the bags, flinching at numbers you didn’t think twice about, and making informed choices.

I’m not saying everyday you have to invest 20 minutes in picking out your foods. I’m just saying we as a people should care a little more about what the labels tell us. If we’re willing to waste the time of two of the most revered legal minds of the 20th century on proper labeling for Vinegar, I think the rest of us can swing at least a day or two of attention to our Totino’s.