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Interpretations of Marketing Strategies: Hidden Information

March 30, 2009

On Friday, Crabby McSlacker at Cranky Fitness looked at the pros and cons of requiring calorie counts on restaurant menus. Because of the recent increase in places all across the States (and Canada, too, now) beginning to mandate nutritional information on restaurant menus, this has been the subject for debate for some time now. And the response at Cranky Fitness is evident of the general consensus: none of us really agree on the matter at all. The discussion in the comments was all across the map. Some were adamant that it’s necessary, some strongly opposed the notion, and others were indifferent. We all seem to have conflicting views on the matter, but something that many people made note of was that the information is often misleading or just plain wrong, anyways.

When I came across an article in the Nation’s Restaurant News which highlights that many restaurants boast inaccurate calorie information, I was reminded once again that we really need to take all information we get with a grain of salt. I love the idea of including the nutritional information at restaurants, myself, but as indicated in the article we cannot assume that the information corresponds exactly to what we’re getting on our plates. We should keep in mind that the same also goes for anything we eat in the grocery store; be it frozen meals or produce, it’s likely that somewhere along the way the count isn’t quite so accurate as suggested. I’m going to be skeptical about a package that claims the contents are 236 calories exactly on the nose. Round it up at least to 250 if you’re a calorie counter- it’s unlikely that the manufacturers have really nailed it down to such a precise detail. More often that not there could be 100+ calories that the label neglects to tell you about.

In this week’s issue of The Uniter there’s a feature piece by yours truly about the misleading claims on food products, as well: Who says health food is really healthy? I think we should definitely be demanding having as much information as possible right under our noses- and that includes nutritional stats on menus- because awareness is key to living healthy. But at the same time, we have to accept that the information we’re given should be considered ballpark material. A combination of awareness and healthy skepticism contributes to a better perspective and healthier lifestyle.

And this brings me to a website I have recently discovered, Charity Navigator. It is a fantastic way to look up charities and organizations of any kind to learn more about them and how you can get involved with them. Each charity is rated:

“Specifically, Charity Navigator’s rating system examines two broad areas of a charity’s financial health — how responsibly it functions day to day as well as how well positioned it is to sustain its programs over time.”

And that’s what really grabbed my interest, the information it provides for each charity: specifically, the breakdown of expenses.

The foundations are all rated* and provide a mission statement. I was fascinated to learn that only 54% of incoming money is for program expenses within the American Dietetic Association- administrative expenses are an astonishing 27%. Compare that to the Diabetes Research and Wellness Foundation, which puts a very respectable 90% towards program expenses, and it makes you start to think carefully about how much progress is being made within various organizations (not that I have anything at all against the American Dietetic Association. I think that their work is wonderful. But everything is worth a second examination).

Granted, there is likely to be much more beneath the surface going on than we can tell by just taking a quick peek at a graph- just like there’s going to be a lot more going on than we can tell by just taking a glance at the calorie counts on a menu- but it still provides a general starter point for us to heighten our awareness. What both Charity Navigator and the restaurant menu nutrition information really do is provide a springboard for us and a starting point from which we can realize that there is more to think about than we might have originally considered. These things allow us to dig a little deeper and find out more information if we so desire. The information is out there. The seed is being planted, and it’s up to us to figure out what we want to do with it and where we want to go from there.

*In case you’re wondering, Charity Navigator doesn’t evaluate itself, on the basis of it being a private foundation rather than a public one. I found that rather interesting. Regardless, it’s a great website and a very useful tool if you’re looking into different charities and organizations.

Don’t forget to answer this month’s poll about food vices!

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20 comments

  1. Sagan– this is a great post! This is my idea on the whole nutritional information thing: I generally* try to stay away from packaged, processed foods because of the processing obviously and the preservatives and gosh, who knows what other crap they put into it! But, if I fancy something a lot…I limit myself while I indulge in Processed Cheese-it goodness πŸ™‚ rather than ruining it by obsessing over the nutritional info!

    ~rupal


  2. I like that. the notion of it being a starter point for our awareness. GREAT POINT and Im not one to think we should have the calorie counts on there (or more clearly phrased that it will make a whole lotta difference).
    again, you’re a fantastic writer, Sagan.


  3. Sneaky, sneaky!!


  4. Well, I still wish they had calorie counts on everything. But I say that realizing it would probably not be good for me:)

    Thanks for the list of charities site!


  5. at first i thought restaurants posting info was a good idea, but then when i thought about it a bit more, it’s got to be insanely difficult to get consistency between different chefs and restaurants. I’m sure they don’t measure EVERYTHING. Best to go back to common sense I guess! :-/


  6. A good dose of common sense helps, too, when evaluating portion sizes and nutritional content. I’m still building my common sense in this area, and articles like this help! πŸ™‚


  7. Rupal- as long as it’s there and we know how to read the information, we’re set.

    MizFit & Charlotte- I’m a sucker for nutrition info. I like to know ALL of it!

    VeggieGirl & ttfn300- lots of “can’t be bothered to measure properly” going on here, and who can blame them? But it’s still good to have the information available where we can see it.

    Cammy- yes! Common sense is crucial.


  8. Good info Sagan. I’m sure they didn’t investigate themselves because of the natural bias that would be included. It is staggering how much money donated yo charities does not actually go to the charity. That’s why I often find it better (if possible) to go straight to the source and help when you can. Obviously you’re not going to a researcher in Ohio and give him money for Diabetes research but there are certainly possibilities.

    As for the nutritional info, as awesome as it would be to have this information for every restaurant, there are so many problems with it such as the cost to obtain that info (for small businesses), the damage to the business it could cause and inaccurate information. Specifically, you can be assured that McDonalds will give you exactly 86 grams of burger but how big is that bowl of chili at your local steakhouse? They’re much less likely to skimp on portions. I remember hearing about Tasti-D-Lite ice cream, 100 calories per 1/2 cup serving. The 1/2 cup serving is the smallest offered size and 100 calories is only true when it’s filled level with the top and has an air ratio of 40%. Well apparently every seller of Tasti-D-Lite filled it in a mound on top equaling at least 1 cup and they set the machine to fill it much less with air (maybe 20%) because it tasted better. End results was 300-400 calories per serving. I should just write my own post on this topic by now but I think nutritional information should be required at many of the popular chains and recommended at most other places. People need to remember that eating out is a luxury not a necessity so if you’re really concerned, don’t eat out!


  9. Readily available but required? Not sure…


  10. It’s interesting, because I live in NYC where this all started, and I do find the calorie counts informative, however I agree that they are often misleading. I’ve taken to seeing them as a general guideline for *about* how many calories might be in something, and for deciding if I *really* need that sugar cookie with my coffee.

    I think that the calorie counts would be more accurate if there was some sort of system in place for penalizing misreported numbers.

    But let me tell you, just seeing that number on the sign in the window of a fast food place has been helpful for keeping me out of said fast food place!


  11. I’m thinking of just putting how many calories I am on a sign, or maybe on my hat. If it goes up, time to work out more, if down, lazy day πŸ™‚

    Too much time on my hands, I guess πŸ™‚


  12. hmm, charity navigator will be handy for the ccn!

    Also, I just learned today that GMOs and items like butter, beer, wine, etc., do not have to have nutritional labelling due to the fact that they are a ‘novel product’. Which is scary given that there are over two hundred non-food additives permissible to be included in beer…


  13. I’m with Charlotte – I’d like to know the cal count even though it’s not good for me. πŸ™‚

    And you are exactly right – “health” food isn’t always as “healthy” as we think. For example, a co-worker of mine who was trying to lose weight was getting Grilled Chicken Caeser wraps from a nearby cafe. After a few weeks, she found out (through the company’s website) that the wrap alone (not including her sides) packed over 800 calories. It’s very deceiving!


  14. I think that the calorie counts should be listed, along with nutritional information. That way, you know if something is empty calories or not.

    Also, a serving size should be what the average person will eat (I know Chipolte tries to fudge their numbers by making dishes more than one serving size).


  15. From just looking at the calorie count, the restaurant rarely list everything that is part of the meal. For example, a baked potato might have 270 calories listed, but that does not include the butter or sour cream. Or the calories for chicken nuggets might be listed, but they did not mention the dipping sauce.

    Now you start to have to do some mental math and have some basic knowledge of calorie counting for sauces and dips in order to make an informed decision. The worst thing is if you think you are eating so little calories, that it is okay to splurge on dessert!


  16. Given that counting calories for a grand total of 4 days turned me into a total wreak, I don’t think this is a good idea. Reducing food down to simply calories doesn’t go any way to teaching people about what is healthy and IMO is more likely to fuel obsessions with food rather than help manage them.

    I like the charity navigator because I’ve tried to get to the bottom of this before. Unfortunately it seems to highlight though how complicated life is and how you can’t take anything at face value without doing your own research. The flip side of that is that it makes it easier to just steer away, like not giving, or not eating something.


  17. Nick- I think you’re absolutely right!

    Mark- as Crabby noted, there’s pros and cons to both sides.

    Meg- thanks for your input! Having not lived in a place that does this I can’t attest to it- makes me love NY that much more πŸ™‚

    Dr. J- haha that would sure make a person stop and think about what they’re eating…

    Westwood- my thoughts exactly; when I learned about the charity site I thought of you! Yeah, there’s always debate about whether or not there should be mandatory labels for alcohol (though there is for butter).

    Holly- you can always tell how much someone knows about health by their stance on Caesar salads πŸ˜‰

    Tricia- agreed. The problem is, what does a normal person eat? We’ve lost sight of what is “normal” these days.

    Small Steps to Health- glad you brought it up as it’s something I forgot to mention. Those sides add up so quick, and oftentimes people neglect to think about them at all.

    Spring Girl- I appreciate this perspective. Yes, it could potentially create obsessions. That’s one of the dangers. Is that possibility worth a lack of awareness and a continue deterioration of our health, though? Tricky questions! With the charity navigator, I like that that’s what it highlights. Keeps us on our toes. We DO need to do our own research to understand the world!


  18. Great post!

    For me personally, I’d like to see all the nutritional stats. Do I think it will make a difference for other people? who knows! But I like having all the info I can (if correct, of course!)


  19. I like to read the nutrition info, but the ACTUAL ingredients are what I’m really interested in! Great article on the Uniter by the way and thanks for the head’s up about the Charity Navigator.


  20. We use charity navigator as one of the tools to help us recommend medically related charities for our magazine.

    Thanks



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