• A cheeseburger for breakfast?

    When I was a kid, there was a simple rule in our house when buying cereal: sugar couldn’t be the first ingredient in the list.

    This led to cereals being lumped into two groups. There were “sugar cereals” and “all others”. Looking back, this seems laughable, but it kept the peace. My siblings and I became masters, however, at gaming the system. We knew the ingredient list of every cereal and could quote you – at length – lists of cereals that passed the test yet still seemed awfully sweet to us.

    We have no such rule in our house today, partially because my wife and I are tyrants and just don’t allow some cereals even to be debated. Plus, no cereals seems to have sugar as the number-one ingredient anymore. So I assumed they were all just healthier.

    Boy, was I wrong:

    To critics, every bowl of Cap’n Crunch is a sweet, crunchy example of all that is wrong with America’s food system. Some brands feature whole grains, few chemical additives, and relatively tame amounts of sugar, but as a category, many breakfast cereal brands fall toward the calorie-dense, nutrient-poor end of the spectrum. Consumer Reports found that 11 popular brands are more than 40 percent sugar by weight, and even brands that at first glance may seem relatively healthy include some surprises in the fine print of their nutrition labels. For example, one cup of Cascadian Farms Organic Oats and Honey Granola contains 348 calories and the same amount of sugar (19 grams) as a standard-sized Hershey bar; once you add a half cup of 2 percent reduced fat milk, it has roughly the same amount of fat (11.5 grams) as a McDonald’s Cheeseburger.

    I guess the cereal companies are good at gaming the system, too.

    I’ve always been a skeptic of menu-labeling as obesity prevention, especially since there’s no guarantee it will work well in practice. But this just appalls me. Honestly, I’d rather have that cheeseburger than a bowl of granola. I’m eating the cereal because I thought it was healthier.

    There’s got to be some way to make this more transparent, in a way that will make sense to people.

    • I ate Yoplait Light yogurt the first three or four months of my last pregnancy b/c I missed that it had Apartame in it and I’m a label reader. I was despondent for weeks and am still bummed out. The “baby” is 9 years old. So I feel your frustration.

    • Believers in the Atkins approach will tell you that (minus the bun), a cheeseburger is a very good choice for breakfast.

    • Nutrition is complicated and I’m not sure how you simplify things down sufficiently without losing the necessary details. 100 calories of fat is NOT the same as 100 calories of carbs is NOT the same as 100 calories of protein. So you must necessarily show calories, fat, carbs, and protein. Not all carbs are identical either so all those are in. Not all fats are identical either so all those are in. Heck, not all protein is identical so knowledge of essential amino acids is in. Of course, vitamins don’t count as calories so you have to add those in.

      One problem is words like “organic” and “natural” distort the truth of the numbers.

      Pure, White and Deadly by Yudkin argues for zero *sugar* (not zero carbs). That seems like a good starting point and is very simple.

    • They have been able to move “sugar” down the list of ingredients by splitting the sugar into several types of sugar: sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, honey, etc.
      They also have replaced the old bad trans fats with “interesterified” fats which is a new synthetic fat which will probably turn out to be just as bad as trans fats (but it will take us another 20 years to figure this out).
      Good rule of thumb… if the ingredients list is more than 3 items long, it’s probably not good for you.

    • Hey Aaron,
      I’d link this study as well for the calorie labeling issue:


    • You know, I don’t think this is that hard and I’m kind of riffing on Micheal Pollan(sp?) here – cook for yourself. Allowing other people to decide what goes in your breakfast bowl is nutritional suicide IMO.

      If you want a good breakfast – it takes 25-35 minutes to cook steel cut oats (four servings) + another 10 seconds to add some dried fruit of your choice. It takes 5 minutes to cook eggs(max) + another 10 minutes of clean up. Granola – good healthy granola – takes all of an hour to make enough for a month.

      Good nutrition starts with cooking for yourself from ingredients you choose. It tastes better too.

    • Just goes to show. If you really care that much about what you’re eating you need to cook it yourself from basic ingredients.

      Nuke it from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

    • As a recent “nutrition label reader/fanatic” I too am frequently stunned by the nutritional content (or lack thereof) of various foods. I’m seriously obese, and last September 14th decided to get serious about reducing my weight and blood pressure.

      The first steps down those roads was to educate myself about what I was eating. Part of that was to start reading the labels, and choosing my foods accordingly. I was and still am amazed at the number of absolutely garbage foods masquerading as “healthy”.

      And as someone who used to eat out frequently, I started to investigate restaurant foods as well. My single most surprising observation was that the things I thought would be the healthiest are often the worst. The biggest surprise was an article in the local paper ( http://www.vancouversun.com/life/food/fatabase/index.html ) that showed a ceasar salad from a popular local restaurant contained more fat, more calories, and more sodium than 4 and a half Big Macs. So much for healthy salads.

      By carefully scruitinizing labels I’ve lost about 1 pound per week for the last 9 months or so. My blood pressure at my semi-annual check-up last week was 120/70. My GP was as pleased as she was surprised.

      Consider me a convert to nutritional labelling, even with all its limitations.

    • um…how about just reading the label. I’m confused why this is so opaque — the calorie and fats information is listed, right? do you think the cereal manufacturer should also provide comparisons to fast food burgers for those too lazy to figure out what 11.5 g of fat means?

      • You know the label also tells you what percentage of your daily intake (given a 2000 kcal diet) the mass is equivalent to. I don’t know how much 11.5g is off the top of my head, but my guess is it’s quite a lot. You can easily scale this number to a 1500 kcal diet (probably more reasonable for most sedentary office dwellers) or a 3000 kcal diet or whatever you want. Point being, read the label and use your head. Just because it says “HEY LOOK SUPER HEALTHY” doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near good for your. It’s really not hard, and it blows my mind that intelligent, educated people believe food industry marketing garbage in the year 2011.

    • I think that it is best to just look at the calorie count because the evidence is that very few in the developed world suffer from amino acid, vitamin of mineral deficiency and so it is all calories eaten vs calories burned.

      Now there is evidence that you feel more saided from fat than from carbs and so you might eat less carbs and more fat for that reason. So you could replace the cereal with beef jerky or and egg.

      BTW I eat when I am hungry and love food, I love my carbs and fats and I am lean. I think that genes play the major role in variance today but the average weight has gone up due to food being more affordable.

      Her is a great link on the same:

    • Aaron, if it were *just* a matter of reading labels then raising literacy rates alone (i.e., ability to read) would decrease obesity. It does not and will not. “Just exercise more” will equally fail to solve obesity.

      All of this information is available and the increasing trend of obesity indicates that the mere presence of information is not the solution.

    • Bacon. Eggs. Repeat.

    • Elsewhere you go into the economics of healthcare and the failure of the market to reduce prices. Your calorie/ingredients labels article triggered another related thought. The obesity epidemic — which contributes to the costs of healthcare — is in part the result of extremely low prices for food in the US. We are obese to some extent because all of these over-caloric foods are relatively cheap (consider huge portions in so many restaurants). If there is going to be more worldwide demand for food and food production will not keep up (as some predict), in a way the problem will be self-correcting. Food prices will rise, we will not be able to buy as much food for our dollars (and restaurant portions will sink to where they were in the 30s and 40s), and we will — as a nation — become less obese. Some interesting questions arise about farm subsidies and the like. Also about the costs of nutritional (“natural”) foods vs. all the additivies and the like in our supermarkets.

    • Where do we go for the best available evidence-based nutritional advice for the layperson?