GOOD

The Sneaky Math That Undermines Calorie Counting

How large numbers can trick us into thinking they represent large quantities of food—and what that means for mandatory calorie counts.


Let’s say you’re choosing between two meals: a hamburger or a hamburger with a side of broccoli salad. Even though the combination of the two contains more calories (or Joules for that matter) and may run up against your goals of reducing energy intake, many of us mistakenly believe that the combination of healthy and indulgent—a hamburger plus a salad, or a candy bar plus an apple—is healthier than the indulgent item alone.

This kind of health halo is known as the “averaging bias,” as Alexander Chernev and Pierre Chandon explain in "Calorie Estimation Biases in Consumer Choice" (PDF). Merely adding a “healthy” option to menus can lower the overall perceived calorie content—a trend, USA Today reports, that many chain restaurants are embracing.


Still, if numbers and statistics have this leveling effect, new mandatory calorie disclosures—coming soon—could tackle the bias on one condition: if we understand the unit of measurement.

You see, large numbers can trick us into thinking they represent large quantities. Hence, a warranty expressed as 84 months appears longer than a 7-year warranty, although they’re equal, as researchers demonstrated in a forthcoming article on the “unit effect” in the Journal of Consumer Research.

When it comes to food, the researchers offered participants a complimentary apple or a Twix labeled with two different units of measurement—Kilocalories (above) or Kilojoules (below). The authors write, "Participants more often chose the apple when the energy content was expressed in Kilojoules than in Kilocalories [because] the former difference (782 Kilojoules) looks much bigger in the latter one (187 Kilocalories).” In other words, a metric measuring system for food energy made the lower energy content of an apple appear larger, when compared to a candy bar.

Food manufacturers have knowingly marketed low-fat foods that don’t necessarily have fewer calories than the full-fat versions, or emphasize seemingly large quantities of micronutrients (fortified with Vitamin D!) in cereals that contain a lot of macronutrients (sugar!). Now, what if these were used to trick us into changing our behaviors for better? Can this kind of quantitative thinking about food be put to better use?

Let us know what you think and stay tuned, we’ll be launching a food label redesign contest that will incorporate some of these ideas in the upcoming weeks.



Articles
Screenshot via Sweden.se/Twitter (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

Greta Thunberg has been dubbed the "Joan of Arc of climate change" for good reason. The 16-year-old activist embodies the courage and conviction of the unlikely underdog heroine, as well as the seemingly innate ability to lead a movement.

Thunberg has dedicated her young life to waking up the world to the climate crisis we face and cutting the crap that gets in the way of fixing it. Her speeches are a unique blend of calm rationality and no-holds-barred bluntness. She speaks truth to power, dispassionately and unflinchingly, and it is glorious.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Ottawa Humane Society / Flickr

The Trump Administration won't be remembered for being kind to animals.

In 2018, it launched a new effort to reinstate cruel hunting practices in Alaska that had been outlawed under Obama. Hunters will be able to shoot hibernating bear cubs, murder wolf and coyote cubs while in their dens, and use dogs to hunt black bears.

Efforts to end animal cruelty by the USDA have been curtailed as well. In 2016, under the Obama Administration, the USDA issued 4,944 animal welfare citations, in two years the numbers dropped to just 1,716.

Keep Reading Show less
Science

The disappearance of 40-year-old mortgage broker William Earl Moldt remained a mystery for 22 years because the technology used to find him hadn't been developed yet.

Moldt was reported missing on November 8, 1997. He had left a nightclub around 11 p.m. where he had been drinking. He wasn't known as a heavy drinker and witnesses at the bar said he didn't seem intoxicated when he left.

Keep Reading Show less
Communities
via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics
via Gage Skidmore

The common stereotypes about liberals and conservatives are that liberals are bleeding hearts and conservatives are cold-hearted.

It makes sense, conservatives want limited government and to cut social programs that help the more vulnerable members of society. Whereas liberals don't mind paying a few more dollars in taxes to help the unfortunate.

A recent study out of Belgium scientifically supports the notion that people who scored lower on emotional ability tests tend to have right-wing and racist views.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics