The numbers game… be careful what you wish for


You may have heard that New York City is leading the way in helping us with our problems with portion control. The latest effort being a ban on large servings of sugary beverages.

Now… before we get there… I want to start in a different place.

Not New York City.

Rather on my desk.

I’m not entirely proud to admit this, but there is a 20-ounce bottle of soda on my desk at this moment. The “proud” idea is one related to the New York article and not specifically any true embarrassment… since the New York effort wouldn’t allow me to buy such a soda. That effort would cap things at a 16-ounce serving. (And we will get back to that.)

On the bottle is a “Nutrition Facts” panel.

It’s something we’ve all become familiar with. The panel has been found on bottles of water, where it proudly shows zero after zero in every category. No calories… no fat… no runs, drips, or errors. It’s water.

On this soda bottle in front of me, there is a division. Much like Ben & Jerry’s wants to pretend there are four servings in a pint of their ice cream, this soda bottle has information about what to expect from a single serving as well as the two and a half servings the full bottle contains. Get this…

In one serving… 8-ounces… there are 110 calories.

And, naturally, in two-and-a-half servings… the 20-ounces of the bottle… there are, of course, 275 calories.

Do the math any way you want...

2.5 times 110 equals 275

(110 divided by 8) times 20 equals 275

110 plus 110 plus 55 equals 275

If one serving has 110 calories, then two-and-a-half has 275.

Only two-and-a-half servings doesn’t.

The bottle in front of me says that 20-ounces has 290 calories.

Heck… let’s add even more fun to the head-scratching. The math actually works for sodium, carbs and sugars. 40mg of sodium in one serving becomes 100mg in the bottle I have. So all of those formulas work.

What the heck is going on with the mystical 15 extra calories per bottle?

If you dig deep enough into the story, you’ll find out some funny things about calories and nutrition labels. What kinds of things?

Oh… for instance that numbers can be rounded off. Really. A page from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration mentions rounding rules and other details for nutrition labels.

And… many restaurants have incorrect numbers. (Sure they do.)

Overall, I have to say that I’m not upset with what Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing. I saw him on the Today show discussing this topic… on “National Doughnut Day” of all dates. And I can appreciate the basics of the proposal, where the concept supposedly isn’t to prevent you from getting as much liquid refreshment as you wish -- rather presenting an idea where a smaller serving size tends to lead to not overindulging. The law as I understand it wouldn’t prevent you from buying two 16-ounce bottles of soda… it would just make it impossible to get a single 32-ounce bottle. Dare I say… without much more in addition… that almost sounds reasonable.

Instead, I want to follow things to an extreme. (And not an illogical extreme.)

(First… side note… go check out the history of National Doughnut Day. Pretty amazing stuff that involves material from World War I and the Great Depression. Now… that extreme…)

We live in a society where people argue that the toys with the meal are stronger than parental guidance… where baking a batch of cupcakes for a youngster’s classroom should be a criminal offense.

Having seen the nutrition information of supposedly “healthy” options like salads, which can be beyond any possible expectations, I simply can’t argue against requiring restaurants and such having those details not only available, but in some fashion posted. I don’t oppose information, and in many ways can support attempts at guidance.

My problem is being policed on the subjects. We’re making soda and such the evil doers, and yet as a public can’t even trust the required labeling information to tell us exactly how evil. The manufacturers might not exactly tell us… the restaurants might not exactly tell us… and, the government that requires them to tell us doesn’t require them to exactly tell us.

So when we see actions start such as limiting beverages… how far away are we from actions like legislating condiments? Use this much salsa… don’t use that much honey mustard… two packets of ketchup and one packet of salt per order.

My guess is not nearly as far as you might expect.

The fact is that numbers lie. (And, in efforts such as this, it can be important that they don’t.) They can claim allowable rounding off and acceptable calculation errors if they want… it’s still effectively a lie. Give a group a loophole, and that loophole will be used to any advantage possible. You have to consider the source of the information you are using.

So crazy as this may sound… I’m not upset or concerned about Mayor Bloomberg promoting the sugary beverage limit effort. I just wish we knew what a sugary beverage was. And while of course that statement is a bit tongue-in-cheek, I don’t think it’s without merit. If there is a chance of my finding a 32-ounce bottle of water in New York… how long before the allowable rounding off brings a soda into that allowable range?

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at