Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hostess on the Nutrition Grade: An exercise in linguistic obfuscation?

I was curious about the amount of calories in a Hostess Twinkie. Turns out that it's 150 calories per Twinkie - which is a lot of calories, but how does it break down?

• Calories: 150
• Calories from fat: 41
• Total Fat: 4.5g (7%)
• Saturated Fat: 2.5g (13%)
• Trans Fat: 0.0g
• Cholesterol: 20mg (7%)
• Sodium: 220mg (9%)
• Total Carbohydrate: 27.0g (9%)
• Sugars: 18.0g
• Protein: 1.0g
• Vitamin A: 0%
• Vitamin C: 0%
• Calcium: 0%
• Iron: 2%
Woah... And that's all based on a 2000 calorie diet. A 2000 calorie diet - according to this calorie calculator - shows that - for a 34-year-old, 5'4", 164lb. female (the average American female's height and weight) is maintenance weight for those who engage in exercise 3 times per week. (Well... the maintenance caloric intake is actually 1967 calories, and not 2000 calories.) For this woman to be be in the "fat loss" category with ~2000 calories/day, she would need to do intense exercise every day or (not-intense) exercise twice per day (1974 calories/day). This is a lot of physical activity to engage in for one Twinkie to be relatively insignificant.

For a 34-year-old, 5'9", 191lb. male (the average American male), his maintenance caloric intake with little or no exercise is 1959 calories (41 calories less than the 2000 calorie diet); at 3 exercise times/week means a maintenance caloric intake of 2245 calories per day. In order for this male to be in the "fat loss" category with ~2000 calories/day, he would need to do intense exercise five times per week (2024 calories/day). Although not as much as for the average female, it is still a significant amount of activity to engage in for that Twinkie to be relatively insignificant.

In other words, it's not surprising that the Twinkie is given a Nutrition Grade of "F". I had never heard of a "Nutrition Grade", but here is what Hostess says on its page:
The Nutrition Grade was developed with the goal of helping people improve the nutritional quality of their diets. This tool is fully automated and does not feature any manual corrections - hence all items are evaluated objectively and following the same set of rules.

As you may know, not all nutrients are equally good for you. Some of them, like cholesterol, sodium, and saturated fats should be avoided as much as possible. Some other ones, however, such as minerals and vitamins, are essential for your health. Thankfully, the USDA devised the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) figures for each one of these nutrients, which were used as the foundation of the Nutrition Grade's algorithm.

Obviously, foods rich in minerals and vitamins are graded highly, and their good points are all listed right next to their grade. Undesirable nutrients contribute to the bad points. Even though the USDA does provide RDA values for these nutrients, these values must be understood differently from those for the desirable nutrients; the undesirable RDAs should be viewed as the very last limit, whereas the desirable RDAs mark a target to shoot for.

The Good and the Bad Points provide a summary of what the Nutrition Grade identifies as the food items' special strengths and weaknesses. Those points are then converted to a numerical format, and then finally turned into the well-known letter format (A-best; F-worst).
Wow, look at that language: it scores a lot of the big points in terms of power words: "fully automated", "objective", "same set of rules", and "algorithm". These terms make everything sound really fair and scientific and wonderful for those ways - in that SCIENCE is a thing to help you out.

However, look at how the description of nutrition grade continues:
No automated tool is perfect, and the same is true for this one. Please understand that Nutrition Grade only checks how close or far away a certain food is in respect to your RDAs. There are many more aspects that need to be considered for Health, and this is only one of them.
Wow, after saying all of those good things about how "objective" it is calculated, how "fully automated" it is, using the "same set of rules" in its "algorithm", Hostess' page is now pointing out that all of these points - which were (arguably) given in a good light in the opening paragraphs, are now described with their negative qualities. It's interesting to see how the language is now changing into the, "Yes, but..." framing. But it gets better in the final paragraph:
Finally, Nutrition Grade will not necessarily help you lose weight. It will, hopefully, help you get it done as healthy as possible, but you could, for example, eat only perfectly graded food items and still end up gaining weight. Weight loss is all about counting calories and it is not necessarily related to health - but health and weight loss are also not mutually exclusive. In other words, you should keep an eye on your calories, and at the same time, also try to get as good a grade as you can.
Wow, talk about equivocation! Let's interpret the words here: