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Nutrition Labels Aimed to Dupe Consumers-And How to Tell What You're Really Eating

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Health Issues page, Appetite For a Change page and our Myth of Natural page.

Diane Cary still chuckles when she remembers the scene she witnessed in a supermarket cereal aisle. A mother and her child were haggling over which cereal to get. The mother insisted on Grape Nuts because she felt it was healthy, but the kid desperately wanted Count Chocula. Exasperated, the mom put both boxes side-by-side and proposed they review the nutrition labels and buy the more nutritious of the two.

When Cary passed the family again in another aisle, they had two boxes of Count Chocula in their cart. As it turns out, in a 100-calorie portion, sugary Count Chocula actually packs more of many vitamins than Grape Nuts (although it does have less protein and fiber).

Like the Grape Nuts-loving mom, many health-conscious Americans rely on nutrition labels to inform their food choices. The number of calories, fat, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals on the label can determine which box of cereal, loaf of bread, or energy bar one chooses to buy. Unfortunately, sometimes even the most conscientious label-reader can be misled.


A calorie is a calorie is a calorie. Calories in minus calories out equals weight gain or weight loss. Right? So what's the difference between an equal amount of calories worth of fresh fruit, and, say, Doritos? Or for a more equivalent comparison, between a whole food like oatmeal and a processed food with similar ingredients like Cheerios?

Melanie Warner, author of Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, points out even though the foods have the same number of calories, they often provide different levels of satiation. "Say you're eating an equivalent amount of calories of potato chips versus a banana," she says. "There's no question that you'd feel a lot fuller if you eat the banana. So the calories aren't the same, because you're probably going to have to eat more later in the day to compensate. And then there is also the nutrients. You're getting a phenomenal number of nutrients from the banana. You're not getting any of that from the potato chips."