All Clear On Calories?

Yesterday, Canada’s beverage industry announced that they will soon be prominently displaying exactly how many calories are in their products. Not only will calorie labels be clear and identical on the front of all cans and bottles of drinks, juice, and pop but calories will also be prominently displayed on vending machine and on fountain dispensers controlled by the beverage industry.

Notably, the new labeling will mark a significant departure from current practice, in that the front-of-package calories for pop bottles up to 591 mL will display the TOTAL calories rather than just the number of calories per serving size. This means that consumers will no longer have to read the “fine print” that defines “serving size” and will no longer have to hone their math skills to figure out exactly how many calories they are drinking when consuming a whole can or bottle (which is what most of us tend to do).

Only on pop containers larger than 591 mL (which the industry considers as multi-serve packaging), will the front-of-package label state the calories per 355 ml (considered a regular portion size).

An important exception will be made for 100% juices, juice beverages, sports drinks and bottled water: as per Health Canada requirements, juices and fruit drinks will be labelled per 250 ml serving size while sports drinks and bottled waters greater than 750 mL will be considered multi-serve and will be labelled per 500 ml serving size.

With this, Canada’s beverage industry clearly acknowledges and addresses the criticism by many, that in the past, nutrition labels have served more to obfuscate than to enable consumers to readily appreciate just how many calories they are actually consuming from caloric beverages.

While the move of Canada’s beverage industry to be “Clear on Calories” is certainly commendable as a bold step in the right direction, there are important caveats in that it is less than clear whether most Canadians can actually use these caloric labels to better manage their caloric intake.

In other words, unless Canadians have at least a rough idea of how many calories they actually need and how many calories they are getting from the foods they eat, the numbers they will now see on the front of a can of pop or juice is likely to remain largely meaningless.

Indeed, both from my own discussions with patients as well as from the materials on “healthy eating” that I often see being promoted to them, I strongly doubt that the average Canadian has even a remote idea of what these numbers actually mean or how to make any reasonable decisions regarding incorporating these beverages into their overall daily caloric allowance.

This may in part be due to the fact that any meaningful discussion of calories appears to have fallen into “disrepute” given our focus on nutrients and food groups.

Indeed, many from the “nutrition community” have told me that they do not discuss calories with their clients because “healthy” eating should be more about balancing macro- and micro-nutrients than about balancing calories. In fact, it seems that the very notion of paying attention to calories is often dismissed as “calorie counting” with the implication that this is a major step back into the “dark ages” of weight management.

This is where I wholeheartedly disagree with the current nutrition dogma that seems to avoid discussing calories at all costs.

As blogged before, I consider calories (a unit of energy) the very “currency” of the obesity epidemic and am convinced that anyone trying to actively manage their body weight needs at least a rudimentary understanding of caloric balance (I call this “caloric literacy”). This is certainly true, if consumers are to make any sense of the calorie numbers that will now be appearing on their beverages.

Indeed, I would go as far as to state that any attempt to take active control of your weight (whether for weight loss, weight gain, or simply weight maintenance) requires at least a basic understanding of roughly how many calories you are putting into your body (food + beverages) versus how many calories your body actually needs (resting metabolic rate + activity).

This is not denying the importance of also balancing your diet in terms of food groups and nutrients but that is a wholly different question (which unfortunately often gets mixed up in the discussion of weight management).

I am also, by no means implying that the obesity epidemic can be solved by the simple application of the formula: “calories in” minus “calories out” equals “calories stored”.

Of course, while this formula holds true, I am only too aware that the application of this formula in real life, is confounded by the rather complex societal, psychological, and biological factors that ultimately determine both caloric intake and expenditure.

I can certainly assure readers, that I also fully appreciate the evidence showing that our individual metabolisms (which account for about 60% of caloric expenditure) rapidly adapt to any voluntary (or involuntary) changes in caloric balance, which often limit or counteract (some would prefer to use the term sabotage) our conscious efforts to simply eat less and move more.

But despite these caveats, I believe that without some degree of caloric consciousness and caloric literacy, simply putting caloric numbers on front of beverages (no matter how honest and revealing these numbers may be), will remain just one (albeit an important) step towards enabling Canadians to better manage their daily caloric balance.

Perhaps the next step would indeed see governments (and the beverage industry?) stepping forward to educate Canadians on what the calorie numbers actually mean and exactly how Canadians can use this information to manage their weights.

I know that some of my readers may believe that the whole problem could be easily solved by simply taxing (or banning?) all caloric beverages – but this utopian demand would be akin to expecting all Canadians to immediately stop using fossil fuels or to simply go vegan.

I, for one, cannot help but applaud the beverage industry for this bold move and sincerely hope that the packaged food industry as well as restaurants follow suit with similar efforts at caloric transparency.

While I do not believe for a minute that this move alone will immediately translate into a slimmer (or healthier Canada), I do believe that some of my readers will probably find this new clarity on calories helpful.

Perhaps it is now time for a national campaign to promote caloric literacy?

As always, your comments are very much appreciated…

Freising, Germany