Numbers Don’t Lie (But They May Fib a Little)

Allen Appel


Any foods that diet gurus declare to be unhealthy are taboo in our home. My wife won’t bring them into the house because she would like to stick around for as long as possible and she values my company.

In order to get through our doors, a product must carry documentation including at least one of the following qualifiers: sugar-free, no sugar added, fat-free, reduced-fat, caffeine-free, low-sodium, low-calorie, or “lite,” although I have no idea what “lite” actually means.

So one day last September I was amazed, when she was unpacking the groceries, to see that she’d brought home a package of muffins.  Our home is a temple where worshipers practice gustatory restraint.  How could she desecrate that temple by admitting a package of killer carbs? Did she think that just because the package had a kosher symbol on it that all the bad stuff had been removed?

She put away the last freezer item, a container of fat-free, no-sugar-added ice cream, and noticed that I was still standing there. She traced the imaginary line leading from my eyeballs to the counter and realized that I was staring at the muffins.  Without even waiting to be asked, she went right into her explanation.

“Every night after dinner,” she began, “we have coffee. I have a couple of pieces of whole grain flatbread with mine, you have three sugar-free cookies with yours. I got bored having whole grain flatbread for dessert every single night. I needed a change. I was sure you would welcome a change from those sugar-free cookies you have night after night. So I got these muffins. They’re sugar-free and they’re not too high in calories. In fact, one muffin has no more calories than your three cookies.”

I was skeptical, so I picked up the package and tried to read the label. Why do they put all the important information on food containers into such small print? In order to read it I had to get out my magnifying glass.

Yes, it was sugar-free. Okay, that was one thing in its favor. At least it wouldn’t wreak havoc with my A1C. Under “Nutrition Facts” it stated that a serving contained 170 calories. Three of my sugar-free cookies total 130 calories. I could have argued that 170 is more than 130 and, therefore, one muffin did have more calories than three of my cookies  but, in the spirit of the presidential polling season, I ignored the disparity and considered the two numbers to be in a statistical tie.

Some other numbers on the label, however, I found impossible to reconcile. The serving size was defined as 2 oz. The net weight of the package was 15 oz. The package held six muffins. Even the Wizard of oz couldn’t divide 15 oz. by 2 oz. and come up with a quotient of 6. Were the basic rules of arithmetic changed while I wasn’t paying attention? Had I somehow slipped into an alternate universe where mathematical rules are arbitrary? I re-examined the label, passing the magnifying glass slowly over each line. There had to be some explanation. Then I saw it, the key to unraveling the mystery. The figure it showed as “Servings per Container” was 7.5. In order for there to be 7.5 servings in the package, each serving would have to consist of just 4/5 of a muffin.

Silly me! I had assumed that one muffin equaled one serving. I guess I was wrong to think logically. But it was understandable that I should make such a mistake. After all, when I went to a diner and ordered coffee and a muffin I was sometimes served only 4/5 of a cup, but never 4/5 of a muffin. I’ve seen menus where the daily lunch special was a cup of soup and half a sandwich, but never 4/5 of a sandwich. Maybe I don’t eat out often enough.

But getting back to the muffins, I calculated that each muffin actually contained not 170 calories,as implied, but 212.5 calories. I can just imagine some marketing executive saying, “We can’t tell  customers that our sugar-free muffins contain over 200 calories. Who would want to buy a sugar-free product that can put on weight? But if we define the serving size as 4/5 of a muffin, we can honestly claim that a serving has only 170 calories. And if that doesn’t work we can redefine the serving size as half a muffin, bringing the calorie count down to barely over 100. We won’t have to change the product at all – only the label.”

So, accepting that a serving is 4/5 of a muffin, how do you divide a muffin into two pieces with one piece exactly four times the size of the other? And what do you do with the smaller piece, the one that is only 1/5 the size of a whole muffin? Do you accumulate fifths until you have four, which would qualify as a serving? What do you do with the half serving, the fifths left over from the last two muffins? Hold on to them until you buy another package? Save them for a very small child?

Isn’t it wonderful how we consumers are protected from misrepresentation by the government’s requirement that Nutrition Facts be supplied with each product?



About the author:

Allen Appel was born in 1937. He received his BA in English from Brooklyn College in 1959, and his subsequent career involved developing computer applications. He moved to an active adult community in 2003, where he writes for the community newspaper.




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