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Energy density and why food labeling should include it

July 7, 2010

[What Does 200 Calories Look Like via Jay Parkinson]

One trick nutritionists use to counsel patients on how to wisely choose foods is to use representations of different foods with a fixed calorie count.  This way, patients can see exactly what 200 calories of celery looks like compared to a cheeseburger.  Unfortunately, not many overweight or obese patients receive such counseling.  Physicians typically aren’t trained in the most effective ways to counsel overweight patients and there aren’t enough nutritionists to provide their much needed counseling to the ever growing number of overweight Americans.

One solution to this problem is to improve our food labeling by adding a measure of “energy density” to packaging.  The simplest way to calculate the energy density of a food is to take the number of grams for a single serving and divide it by the number of calories for that serving (ED=grams/calories).  Food manufacturers do their best to obscure the true amount of calories in a packaged product, usually by taking a package of food that looks like a single serving and divide into smaller portions (ie–taking a 12 ounce can of Coca-Cola and counting it as 1.5 servings).  The FDA has tried to combat this by pushing manufacturers to change their labels to reflect the number of calories in an entire package.  Despite this effort, food labeling remains relatively complicated and often requires mental math to determine how many calories you may be consuming.  By adding a measure of energy density, “bad” foods become more easily identifiable.  Below is a short list of the energy density of some foods (according the information in from the WiseGeek post):

Using this metric it becomes quite clear which foods are very energy dense.  You can eat about 27 times as much celery as glazed doughnuts and consume the same number of calories.  Unfortunately, this metric (like any metric) is not perfect.  Avocados have an energy density of 0.625 grams per calorie, much worse than many other foods on this list.  However, this obscures the fact that avocados are full of “good” fats that are a very beneficial part of a diet.

Despite the shortcomings of using energy density as a measure of how healthy a particular food is, it does well at preventing food manufacturers from adjusting serving sizes to produce favorable calorie counts on their labels.  Food manufacturers should head a movement to voluntarily add this metric to food labeling.  And since this is highly unlikely, the FDA should require it.  Empower the public to make wise food choices by providing comprehensive information and help health care professionals educate patients on how to use such information.

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