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Archive for February, 2012

Chocolate bars on a diet?!

Last week, Mars, Inc. announced it will stop shipping chocolate bars that “exceed 250 calories per portion by the end of 2013.” The company has made the pledge as part of an agreement with Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America. Mars and 16 other manufacturers have pledged to reduce 1.5 trillion calories by the end of 2015 by offering lower-calorie options and reducing portion sizes.

Mars, Inc. writes on its website:

  • “We are committed to making sure the products we offer, and the ingredients they contain, can fit into a balanced diet – whether whole grain rice or a delicious Mars chocolate bar. We are also committed to marketing and selling our products in a responsible way.”

This sounds like good news considering that Mars makes some of the top-selling brands of chocolate products in the world including Snickers, M&Ms, 3 Musketeers, Mars, and Twix. And all of these products come in king size portions as well as the regular size portions.  Currently, the regular size Snickers bar has 280 calories, while the king size has 510 calories.

Most consumers—myself included–took the announcement to mean that the company will stop marketing chocolate bars with more than 250 calories. So would that mean an end to king size bars?

Wishful thinking. The issue surrounds the definition of what constitutes a “portion.” Is a portion a “piece” or “the entire contents of what is in the package”? Most people that I know would say the latter.  After all, the package is marketed as one portion for one person.

After reading the fine print on Mars’ website, here is what the company intends to do. They write:

  • “We have committed not to ship any chocolate products that exceed 250 calories per portion by the end of 2013. In many markets, we have replaced SNICKERS® King Size — one large chocolate bar — with two smaller bars. The new product is called the SNICKERS® Duo, in the U.K, for example. In the U.S., our “2toGo” bars are packed in memory wrappers that can be twisted to close, giving people the choice to save one portion for later.”

As reported succinctly in the LA Times, “…it means packaging will change: hefty King Size portions will be subdivided into smaller “2toGo” sub-portions, designed to make it easier to put one serving aside for later.”

Good luck with that. Are most people really going to put the other piece aside for later?!  Perhaps, but probably just in theory.

Here are my thoughts:

If Mars were to actually stop selling chocolate bars with more than 250 calories, it would be a step in the right direction. Even though a 250 calorie chocolate bar is too caloric, it would still mean  progress, given the high calorie count in some of today’s candy bars.

But the company still plans to sell chocolate candy with more than 250 calories in one package—they are just going to “package” the contents differently.

On the website for the new bar, here is how Mars describes  the new Snickers 2toGo:

  • “It’s two pieces in one Snickers 2toGo. Enjoy twice the roasted peanuts, nougat, caramel, and milk chocolate wrapped in one resealable twist wrap package.”

And the new “2toGo” sub-portioned Snickers package weighs in at 3.3 ounces and  contains 440 calories! Yikes. It also looks pretty big to me when compared to the regular size 2.1 ounce bar. [See photo.]

While the 2toGo bar is an improvement from the 510 calorie king-size bar, it is still too big and contains far too many calories, especially for a candy bar.   While Mars’ efforts are a small step in the right direction, how about doing away with jumbo candy bars altogether?! Instead of selling “2toGo” bars in one package, why not sell each individual 1.7 ounce–and 220 calorie—“portion” as its own individually wrapped candy bar. Now that would be real progress and the portion would actually contain fewer than 250 calories.

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NYC’s Portion Campaign Continues

A month ago, the NYC Department of Health launched a new campaign on portion sizes–Cut Your Portions. Cut Your Risk–featuring ads on subways encouraging New Yorkers to trim their portions to reduce their risk of health problems. As I previously wrote , the city’s health department is very proactive in fighting obesity and other public health issues, and this campaign is urging New Yorkers to be more aware of portion sizes when deciding what to eat or drink. The campaign makes perfect sense at a time when food portions have increased and so have rates of obesity.

Not surprisingly, the campaign drew criticism from food industry groups selling the very foods the city’s health department is suggesting we limit. As reported in Crains, the American Beverage Association, called the ads “scare tactics.” They further indicated that they are offering “real solutions” including smaller portioned containers and calorie labels on the front of the package.

While several smaller sized containers have indeed been introduced, soft drinks marketed for individual consumption are still much too big. For example, 7-Eleven’s “Double Gulp” soda is 64-ounces, contains nearly 800 calories and 50 teaspoons of sugar, if you don’t add too much ice. While this soda is marketed for one person, it is really sized to be shared among eight people. Further, while the standard Coca-Cola bottle found in vending machines was once 6.5-ounces, today it is 20-ounces.

The Center for Consumer Freedom also took offense to the campaign. They wrote “By now you’ve probably heard of the latest round of food-fear ads from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. … the City now implies that larger sodas and cheeseburgers are causing amputations, and people to ride obesity scooters.” They further indicate that The ads ignore decades of research into the causes of obesity, choosing instead to confuse correlation with causation. In that spirit, we tried our hand at irrationally demonizing products with the horror of upward-sloping lines.”

As reported in the New York Times, the city’s health department explained its approach with the following statement: “When science tells us that smoking does not cause lung cancer or that obesity is not driving an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes, we will stop depicting those facts in ads. Until then we are going to accurately convey the facts in our advertising — advertising that has helped to successfully reduce smoking in New York City to a historic low of 14 percent, saving thousands of lives.”

Recently, in the Huffington Post, Sandra Mullin and Nandita Murukutla from the World Lung Foundation wrote a compelling article “Hard Hitting Messages That Work: NYC’s Public Health Education Campaign” in response to the recent series of stories in the New York Times questioning the city’s efforts to combat obesity with a series of hard hitting messages. Their conclusion: “New York City’s efforts are grounded in rigorous message testing and a logical premise that years of deceitful marketing cannot be undone with feel-good messaging. To stem obesity and the tobacco epidemic, health departments need to build on what’s worked whether it is palatable or not. Good medicine is often hard to swallow.”

While the ads may make you look twice and it may not be pleasant to view (i.e. an amputee in a wheelchair), they do make one take notice of potential health implications of obesity and overeating.

The NYC health department has unveiled other such public health campaigns , and it appears that they may be working. Smoking has declined in New York City and so have rates of childhood obesity in NYC. I applaud the health department for its efforts in fighting to improve the public health of New Yorkers and hope other health departments around the country follow New York’s lead.

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Bigger coffee cups

How big can a coffee cup get? These days, very big! Reporting in The Journal of Queen’s University, Tim Hortons in Canada recently unveiled a new 710-ml (24 oz) Extra Large coffee cup. It is larger than a Starbucks 20 oz Venti and a McDonald’s Extra Large coffee. (See photo graphic by Justin Chin of The Journal.)

There seems to be a trend toward larger coffee cups. Last year, Starbucks USA increased its iced coffee by introducing a Trenta, 31- oz size. This may have been done to compete with McDonald’s 32-oz sweet drinks. Tim Hortons USA already offers Extra Large sizes for drinks.

So, what are we to make of these jumbo coffee drinks? While it may be cheaper to purchase a larger size, which is why we are so often enticed to buy them, there are many health implications from buying such sizes. First off, it is full of caffeine, with 240 mg. (A standard 8-oz size contains around 100 mg caffeine.) Secondly, while black coffee provides no calories, opt for the French Vanilla Cappuccino and you’ve just guzzled down 600 calories, more than 19 grams of saturated fat, and 74 grams of sugar. And the drink contains virtually very few vitamins and minerals. According to The Journal, that is the equivalent to eating “two tablespoons of bacon grease and 19 sugar cubes.”

“Small” anyone?! Or at Starbucks, that would be the “Tall.”

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