Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 24 November 2017
The Humble Percentage and Food Labels
Percent or (percentage) used to be spelled per cent (and sometimes still is). It comes from the latin per centum meaning by the hundred.
What percent means is changing any list of numbers that add up to an irregular total into a modified list that adds up to 100. Once you get used to it reading a table of percentages becomes familiar and comfortable. Percentages can also be expressed as fractions and odds (think racecourses).
For example, 50% is a half, or odds of 2 to 1 in racecourse parlance (still meaning 1 chance in 2, but expressed this way because you get $2 profit for every $1 bet). 33% is about one third, 25% a quarter, 20% one fifth and 10% one tenth.
I used to joke when I was designing surveys for market research that only 1 person in 5 or 20% of the population understands what a basic percentages is. I actually had no idea. I thought I was exaggerating.
This article comes about because a friend couldn’t work out from an Australian food label: how much sugar and fat were contained by percentage, in items off the supermarket shelf.
The friend is very conscientious and intelligent. She likes to read maps before journeys and plot things. She is a much better travel planner than Denise or I. She is interested in politics and subscribes to and reads the Weekly Guardian, UK. She likes to study things and work out what is right and wrong about issues. She supports charities. She is concerned about nutrition and health and would not willingly eat more sugar, fat or salt than is healthy.
Despite government concerns in Australia over obesity, politicians are lobbied and captured by the food industry to keep food labelling virtually impenetrable to the consumer. Most large industries are the same. And, the situation is similar in most Western countries.
Under ingredients, the inadequate but useful standard means that most ingredients need to be listed by ingoing weight and must show the percentage of the key ingredients to allow consumers to compare similar products. Needless to say these labels are small and hard to read and nowhere will you see a useful percentage labelled as such.
Let’s look at a simple and readable side label from a Weet-Bix box.
Ignore everything else except the Per 100g. We are not interested in the first two figures on nutrition (although useful) nor the minor ingredients in micro-grams (mg). Although, note that Sodium measures the percentage of salt (0.26%) We are only interested in the figures in grams (g). These are the major ingredients and because they are per 100g, they are the percentages we are looking for. The total fat in these Weet-bix is 3.6%, which is moderate for breakfast cereals, but insignificant in the scheme of things; whereas the sugar is 9.9%. The sugar content is above the low sugar cereals below, but well below the sugar of many breakfast cereals. Weet-bix by Sanitarium should also be complimented for not telling absolute lies in bigger lettering on the front of its box.
Most cereal manufacturers do lie on the front of their boxes. Let’s look at Kellogg’s Sugar Frosties. On the front of the box Frosties says it contains 14% sugar per 30g serve. The serve size is a fiddle (most manufacturers use 45g) and that seems to be to avoid the standard 50g serve. However, as you will know by now the percentage (out of 100) is the same whatever the serve size. If you look at the side of a Frosties box you will find that the actual sugar content in small print is 41.3%.
How is this possible? Well all manufacturers use skim milk over their breakfast cereal to get the front cover serve percentage, which usually halves the sugar and the fat. For example, Sultana Bran by Kellogg’s and 5 Whole Grain Flakes by Be Natural have 45g and 40g serve sizes. The difference between the large figures on the front and the 100g figure on the side of the box of is 11% to 22.7% for Sultana Bran and 6% to 12.5% for 5 Whole Grain Flakes. Frosties by using a 30g serve size and trying to mask the fact that its contents are approaching half sugar, fudges the figures even more shamelessly.
The outrageous claim of 14% by Frosties when the actual is 41.3% is somehow due to the manipulation of the small serve size perhaps, with a very large dose of skim milk. (The front of Box has now changed but the manipulation continues.)
In Australia the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) is responsible for false or misleading claims in advertising and can impose hefty fines. However, to my knowledge the ACCC has never challenged the breakfast food industry over these blatant lies.
Breakfast cereals are a minefield on the supermarket shelves as the same manufacturer’s product sugar levels vary widely, even amongst supposedly benign muesli ranges e.g. Lowan from 9.2% to 26.4% sugar.
Sugar in Other Products
I’m more worried about sugar in breakfast cereals and perhaps yoghurt and fruit than other products, because I eat them every morning. I only eat ice cream occasionally, tend to over-eat milk chocolate, but again only occasionally and rarely drink soft drinks.
However, the amounts of sugar are startling. Cadbury dairy milk chocolate contains 27.4% fat and 55.4% sugar (frightening but mitigated by small serving sizes), expensive brands of ice cream whose flavours I like Connoisseur and Sarah Lee contain 16.7% fat, 20% sugar and 12.1% fat, 25.4% sugar, respectively. Peter’s Original Vanilla ice cream contains 6.4% fat and 21.7% sugar. I’m more worried about ice cream because serve sizes are large compared to chocolate.
Coca Cola Classic contains ~55 g sugar per 500 ml and Gatorade around half that. Percentages don’t seem to be used, but most soft drinks and fruit drinks are very sugary.
Around my pantry the following products tend to contain high levels of sugar: sauces, jams, honey, as do cakes, sweet biscuits and many desserts. Fortunately, I’m not much of an eater of these things except, sauces, chutneys etc. But, the saving grace for sauces and chutneys are the small serve sizes.
The other thing that can be really chock full of fat and sugar are muesli bars and ‘so called’ health bars (those with supposed yoghurt are especially bad). Some health bars have much higher levels of sugar and fat than a Mars Bar or other chocolate-coated bars.
Sources of Basic Information
To save me visiting stores and gathering the information myself, I am using two sources of data both of which have good information, but need to be treated warily on other matters (see below).
The first is Choice Australia’s leading consumer advocacy group. Although Choice does a reasonable job, one needs to join as a member to get some of their detailed reports, and online you are often frustrated even as a member, because much of their data and methods aren’t open to thorough scrutiny.
The second is David Gillespie who discovered that sugar was making him obese and doing him harm. He has written a number of books on sugar and other things about diet, which I am using for basic data, especially his Teaspoon Guide to Australian Breakfast Cereals 2008. His data is good but some of his views seem a bit extreme. (Further information is given below.)
David Gillespie’s Analysis of Australian Breakfast Cereals
If you live in the USA, UK or elsewhere in Europe, the brand names may be different but the results are the same.
The best 10
Variations on Oats and Wheat are the way to go for a low sugar breakfast… You’d have to eat eight Kid’s Weet-bix (number 10) before you even got near one whole teaspoon of sugar. (DG)
The Worst 10
The usual suspects fill-up the list of cereals with the highest amount of sugar. One small bowl (50g) of Cocoa Puffs from Coles or Woolworths’ house brands will deliver over five teaspoons of sugar. Health nuts might be a bit surprised by some of the other entries in the Worst 10. Whenever you see Honey or Sultanas in the name of a cereal, it’s usually a good idea to carefully check the sugar content. (DG)
Coles and Woolworths are Australia’s major supermarkets, but whatever their name supermarkets elsewhere in the world are much the same.
David Gillespie provides a complete list in the download (see below). He also gives the teaspoons of sugar contained in each 50g serve, which is very useful. Kellogg’s Sugar Frosties above contain 5 teaspoons of sugar in a 50g serve.
Using Gillespie’s information I can see that Sultana Bran contains almost 3 teaspoons and 5 Whole Grain Flakes a touch over one and a half teaspoons of sugar per 50g serve.
Choice on Breakfast Cereals
Choice has a similar review on breakfast cereals to David Gillespie’s.
Choice also has a Muesli Buying Guide, which makes several pertinent points. One can buy extremely expensive muesli, some of which is good, but perhaps not worth the price. The same could be said of the upper end of the commercial range: Carman’s muesli is generally low in sugar but is it worth the premium?
Choice also provides a good low sugar muesli recipe as a much cheaper alternative. I must admit I have told myself that I really should make my own muesli but haven’t taken the final step. I also used to buy raw muesli from two different wholefood stores. Both were reasonably priced and relatively low in sugar.
They also define the different types of muesli quite well.
Choice has another review article on porridge and oats, which are an obvious low sugar option. I am quite happy with rolled oats in my raw muesli but am not a fan of porridge.
My Own Eating Habits
I need to come clean about my own eating habits, which also explains why I am focussing on sugar and breakfast cereals. (This is depressing.)
I am a typical well-educated professional from the middle class, with educated parents, whilst not wealthy I am financially comfortable. I exercise regularly, mainly walking and going to the gym twice a week. I eat meat. I like food and am what you could call a fringe ‘foodie’ but in a casual way. I like Asian food, Italian and French cuisine but I have grown out of Indian food. We eat out regularly. You can probably guess the type of diet I eat.
I am overweight but not obese. I consider my current weight to be about 5 kg more than I would like, but I have been this way for some time. This does vary occasionally up to 8 kg overweight, but 5 kg is consistent. I could lose 10 kg and not be underweight but I don’t desire this. I carry more fat around my stomach than I should.
In the early 1980s in Australia, when I came back from Ireland, many of my friends had switched to low salt in cooking. I initially found the food bland. These days I try to put more salt in my food than I used to, but I really notice the salt when I occasionally eat processed food and junk food. I don’t eat much of either regularly.
For the past twenty years, I have been on a relatively low fat diet. We began to believe that animal fats were bad and that any fat was bad. I have relaxed both on the animal fats and the low fat, but not by much. Nevertheless, I do need to keep an eye on fat.
I need to eat less and we have been playing with this but in a desultory way
This explains why I am only interested in sugar, because I think I may eat too much sugar. My concentration on breakfast is because this is the area where I feel I may get too much sugar. Although I indulge in chocolate when available, I don’t buy it regularly. I don’t tend to snack and I am not huge fan of cakes, sweet biscuits or desserts in general. I also don’t eat a lot of jam or honey.
Ice cream could be a problem because of a current habit of buying expensive high sugar ice creams on special and because of serve size, but I also don’t eat ice cream that regularly. I could also switch to cheap low sugar vanilla ice cream without effort.
My Sugar Consumption on Average
At the moment I mix two commercial muesli (Aldi 16.7% sugar & Lowan 9.2% sugar) for breakfast, with Psyllium husk (no sugar) and a sprinkle of plain bran flakes above (12.5 % sugar). This I eat with skim milk, but I do add fruit and yoghurt as follows:
|Tony's Breakfast Muesli||Grams (g)||Sugar (g)||% Sugar|
|Low Fat Yoghurt||66||3.63||5.5%|
The table shows my current breakfast cereal consumption each day. I weighed each ingredient to obtain the grams. I looked up the percentage sugar from the nutrition labels. (Note: These percentages do not add up to 100 because they are the percentage sugar in each item.) I calculated the grams of sugar contained in each ingredient by multiplying the two. I used David Gillespie’s book to calculate the teaspoons of sugar.
From the table my breakfast consumption of sugar is about 6 teaspoons. I have 1 teaspoon of sugar in tea and coffee about 5 cups per day. And I’d guess an average of 3 teaspoons in miscellaneous items. This is 14 teaspoons of sugar per day, which according to Choice is the Australian average in 2011-12. I actually find this average figure hard to believe! WHO (The World Health Organisation) suggests 13 teaspoons is the level that adults should not exceed.
Do I feel content? Not really. I know that I exceed this amount by irregular binges of cake, biscuits, ice cream, chocolate or desserts. Now I may not have any of these some weeks, but occasionally I do. And it doesn’t take much to blow the budget, which is why I find the Australian average unlikely!
I should make my own muesli and then I can control the sugar content. I should stop taking sugar in tea or coffee. I should just eat plain low fat yoghurt. And probably be more careful with ice cream. Then the occasional binge (sometimes just to be polite) will not matter. The wines I drink are surprisingly low in sugar.
Similarly, the odd high salt hit from junk food and the occasional high fat meal won’t matter either, as long as the basics are under control.
A New Year’s resolution in the offing! Particularly to cut down my sugar consumption.
As they say, all that is required is moderation, but how boring moderation is. Nevertheless, as we get older we pay more commensurately for life’s indulgences and one does need at least to take control.
The Australian Prime Minister in a rare moment of commonsense said when asked how he had lost weight: I ate less. Similarly, we don’t need to diet we just need to eat less.
I hope this has shown you that the humble percentage is a very useful tool. And that looking at the food labels in supermarkets is essential; even if you have to take your glasses with you.
Some processed foods and pre-cooked meals contain levels of things that you don’t really want to eat!
Nevertheless, governments are being duplicitious when they complain about the obesity epidemic on the one hand and kowtow to the food industry by not supporting sensible food labelling laws or educating the public on the other.
Posted from Kathmandu, Nepal
Key Words: percent, percentage, food label, food labelling, breakfast cereals, sugar, Choice Magazine, David Gillespie, governments, obesity epidemic
Breakfast Cereal Labelling
I am being a bit unfair to Kellogg’s as the Frosties pack shown above is a couple of years old (2015). A new star system has been introduced which goes from half a star to 5 stars. Kelloggs is still manipulating but not as much and has removed the percentages from the front of the pack. Interestingly, I heard on the news that is Nestlé manipulating Milo to 4.5 stars because of using skim milk. Although no-one in the history of drinking Milo has ever done it with skim milk. Kellogg’s is also up to its old tricks as well (Choice had link on this but no longer available). So don’t feel sorry for them. I still think it is outrageous that a breakfast cereal can pretend not to be full of sugar by trading on another product skim milk and a large dose of the watery substance. A very good reason for you to be conscious of the actual constituents of food products on the supermarket shelf and elsewhere. Governments are duplicitous in not introducing food labelling that actually helps consumers, but then that is unfortunately what we expect of our politicians.
David Gillespie is a lawyer who was obese, lethargic and sleep deprived. He cut sugar from his diet, lost weight and became slim trim and fired up.
He has written about sugar and is a passionate advocate on restricting sugar in our diet, but he is also not a scientist and some of his views are extreme. Nevertheless, David is not a cultist of the ‘follow-me and I’ll solve all your problems school’. David is sincere, admirable and provides useful information. Hence I am giving him more space than I normally would, but also including criticism.
Teaspoon Guide to Australian Breakfast Cereals 2008
Download of Teaspoon Guide
David Gillespie on Fructose
David Gillespie on Fructose on ABC Radio National Occam’s Razor
A rejoinder from a nutrition researcher
Nutrition Australia takes exception. (The original article I referred to has disappeared but they say this.)
A dietician takes exception
David Gillespie on Toxic oil
David Gillespie also believes that seed oils are toxic. I do not believe that there is any evidence of this.
David Gillespie about toxic oils on ABC Local Radio with critical overviews by well-known and respected experts
They pooh pooh David Gillespie’s ideas but say: At a time when a consensus has emerged that polyunsaturated fats are the preferred replacement for dietary saturated fats for the prevention of coronary heart disease…
The badness of animal fats has been challenged by new evidence over the past few years. In 2017, while some say that saturated animal fats are no longer as bad as once thought and some margarine companies are going bust, many mainstream nutritionists are holding the line that all saturated fats are bad. Other spreads such as Canola and Olive oil are going gangbusters. Choice gives some information on this but one does get equivocal advice from various sources. However, there is no credible evidence on what David Gillespie’s claims about toxic oils.
Another critical review by a nutritionist. The Conversation Peer Review 2013: David Gillespie’s Toxic Oil
It seems to me that David Gillespie has over-sold his views and lacks credibility. However, nutritionists are not always as consistent as one would want. As individuals we keep getting conflicting messages about healthy eating. The media is partly responsible but governments also appear to have no interest in dealing with public health, poor eating habits and obesity. There is little funding for public health and too much funding for medical fixes, when things go wrong.
Nevertheless, David Gillespie gets a lot of airtime on the ABC
David Gillespie lawyer In Conversation with Richard Fidler 2011
Muesli Buying Guide with Recipe
In this guide Choice says:
In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a recommendation that no more than 10% of total daily energy intake should come from added sugars. For an average adult intake of 8,700 kilojoules, this equates to 52 grams or 13 teaspoons of added sugar.
Contrary to the advice from health bodies, in 2011-12 Australians consumed on average 60 grams (14 teaspoons) of added sugar a day. This equates to almost 22 kilos of added sugar a year. The situation is worse for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are consuming on average 75 grams (18 teaspoons) of added sugar daily.
The Australian Health Survey found that over half of Australians exceed the WHO’s recommendation to reduce added sugar to 10% of daily energy intake. And the most affected groups? Children and teenagers.
Choice and others on dishonest star ratings
Choice comment on star ratings
Residual sugars in dry wines
Minimal from 0.1 to 1.5%