If these data were in a grant, it wouldn’t be funded

Harping on my chronic lack of time this month due to a hectic schedule, I am going to post a quick laconic blog featuring a little something that I noticed in the freezer. I stay away from these frozen ice cream goodies, but I noticed the empty box sitting in the freezer when looking for something else.

Tasty treats that I try to avoid


According to my spouse, it’s purely a male trait to empty containers in the refrigerator/freezer, so my son must be the guilty party.

In any case, as I was heading for the recycling bin, I couldn’t resist congratulating how much fat I had avoided eating. So I looked at the “fat per serving,” and then looked again. They had it listed twice: per single bar, or per two bars. What are we consumers, stupid? They need to calculate how much fat there is if we eat either one bar of ice cream or two per ‘serving’?

measuring fat content: this ice cream company needs a new calculator

That’s what they did! With one slight problem: if you look at their calculations, while 1 bar is 52 grams and 2 bars are 104 grams, and 1 bar has 190 calories and 2 bars have 380, saturated fat has an unusual property; it increases disproportionally!

So while eating 1 bar provides an astonishing 40% of one’s daily recommended saturated fat, 2 bars provide 85%. How does that work, exactly?

I don’t know, but if these were data provided in a grant proposal, it sure wouldn’t get funded!

post script note: Fuzzy math: how is 35 mg of sodium equal to 1% of the daily recommended sodium for 1 bar, and then with 2 bars it becomes 65 mg sodium that is now 3%?

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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39 Responses to If these data were in a grant, it wouldn’t be funded

  1. Austin says:

    You’re definitely a scientist, Steve…!

    PS I’ve added a game to my last chess-ical post, BTW.

  2. Mike says:

    I really hope it’s all based on the number of significant digits and sloppy rounding errors, otherwise the 0% to 3% increase in dietary fibre seems infinitely too good to be true.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I think it’s more than just “sloppy rounding errors.” I mean, look at the sodium! One bar has 35 mg which is 1%, whereas 2 bars have 65 mg (close, but how difficult is it to add 35 + 35?) have 3%

      It’s pure incompetence!

  3. My favourites are the nutritional information charts on bottled water:

    % daily value:
    fat 0
    protein 0
    vitamin B12 0
    avocado puree 0
    ostrich feathers 0


  4. A few years ago the public health and food standards people in the UK suggested supplementing the tables, which nobody looks at – well, nobody except Steve! – with a simplified ‘traffic light’ system. The idea was that red/amber/green ‘light’ labels system would indicate broadly whether foods were high/medium/low in fat, sugar, protein and salt.

    This system was nixed after what was widely understood to be frantic lobbying of politicians by the (processed) food industry.

    More recently the UK Govt has invited several of the fast food manufacturers to join their ‘partnership’ thinking of ways to help people eat more healthily. As the saying goes, you couldn’t make it up.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      For once I agree with the processed food industry! I want the details of how much of everything goes into the food.For example, if I did want to treat myself to a mildly unhealthy snack, I’d like to know whether it’s going to spike my blood sugar level or clog my arteries. The amber color doesn’t tell me anything!

      Great partners! It’s like having the cigarette industry for for cancer research…

      • Austin says:

        I don’t think they were going to delete the current labelling, just add the traffic light system as well.

        The point was that, for most ordinary (non scientific ?!) people trying to make vaguely considered choices about healthy food, the evidence says that the current labelling, if that is all there is, is too complex / detailed / requres too much attention.

        The cynical implication was that it suited the food industry that way, as they could point out (truthfully) that they gave detailed information. Of course, they were also simultaneously secure in the knowledge that most of the customers never read it. and thus in reality used no information at all to inform choice. So you could load the processed food with salt and sugar and the only people that would notice were Dr Caplan and a few like-minded souls.

        Your point about the tobacco industry as partners is well taken. You will by now perhaps NOT be surprised to hear that the UK Govt’s ‘partners’ on alcohol harm reduction taskforce are… the booze manufacturers. See my previous signing-off sentence.

        • Mike says:

          or most ordinary (non scientific ?!) people trying to make vaguely considered choices about healthy food, the evidence says that the current labelling, if that is all there is, is too complex / detailed / requres too much attention.

          I call bullshit on that one. Considering that the average UK bloke can figure out how many wins/draws/losses are required for various mathematical outcomes in football league tables, in half a nanosecond, while pissed out their mind, I think the truth is they just don’t care about health. That probably falls into your “requires too much attention” category though.

          And from my enjoyment of North American sports, I’m pretty confident that NA sports fans are at least as good, if not better at the related stats than Yoorpeans. And they’re fatter.

          • Steve Caplan says:

            Sorry, Austin-
            I’m going to side with Mike on this one. Most people don’t care. I mean if 20% of the US population STILL smokes (higher in most European countries), despite every possible warning and bit of evidence out there about the many inherent dangers–that pretty much says it all.

          • Austin says:

            Hmm. I see I’m out-voted.

            On a related theme, just spotted this.

          • …with the caveat that nicotine is highly addictive, whereas crappy food, for the most part, isn’t. Or not as much.

            [the above statement might not actually be true, but I’m too lazy to dig into the relevant dopamine signaling literature]

    • Bruce A. says:

      The “Noom” exercise-&-food-tracking app I have on my smart phone uses the green-yellow-red system you describe. Works pretty well; I lost 25 pounds in about four months. A small but vocal portion of Noom’s users do complain that there’s not more specific information available.

  5. i guess percentages are rounded up. that is: 1.4 rounds down to 1, but 2.8 rounds up to 3.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Ha! But how does 35 doubled end up 65?

      • Tim Smith says:

        Because, according to 21 CFR 1 section 101.9, sodium content is given as: “A statement of the number of milligrams of sodium in a specified serving of food expressed as zero when the serving contains less than 5 milligrams of sodium, to the nearest 5-milligram increment when the serving contains 5 to 140 milligrams of sodium, and to the nearest 10-milligram increment when the serving contains greater than 140 milligrams.”

        I don’t know if these links are stable, but you may enjoy:

        You’ve never been suspicious that you only see round numbers?

        • Steve Caplan says:

          Thanks for that! However, it still doesn’t explain the “fuzzy math.”

          • Tim Smith says:

            It certainly does. The same section of the CFR provides that percentages are specified as: “The percent shall be
            calculated by dividing either the amount declared on the label for each nutrient or the actual amount of each nutrient (i.e., before rounding) by the DRV for the nutrient.” These percentages were evidently calculated after rounding.

            Let’s consider your examples.

            “So while eating 1 bar provides an astonishing 40% of one’s daily recommended saturated fat, 2 bars provide 85%. How does that work, exactly?”

            The basis for saturated fat RDL is 20 grams for a 2,000 kcal diet. You can see that 8 grams is 40% of 20 grams. Likewise, 17 grams is 85% of 20 grams. Suppose the bar “actually” contains 8.4 g of saturated fat. One bar rounds down to 8; two bars rounds up to 17.

            “post script note: Fuzzy math: how is 35 mg of sodium equal to 1% of the daily recommended sodium for 1 bar, and then with 2 bars it becomes 65 mg sodium that is now 3%?”

            Again, they’re rounded to the nearest percent. The basis for the sodium RDL is 2400mg. 35/2400 = 0.014 and rounded down; 65/2400 = 0.027 and rounded up.

          • Tim Smith says:

            — or, if the point of concern is “why twice 35 is 65”, suppose the bar actually contains 33 mg of sodium; by that FDA regulation, the single bar’s 33 mg is printed as 35 mg and the combined bars’ 66 mg is printed as 65 mg.

  6. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Wow. And here’s me thinking those tables are regulated by the government and actually, y’know, mean something.

    I wonder if the Canadian version is wrong in both official languages, or if this is a unique property of Anglophone fat?

    I might have to go and buy a box now so I can check…


  7. Steve Caplan says:

    A true scientist! What a sacrifice to make!

    Isn’t Haagen Dazs Dutch or German? We may need to check those boxes too!

  8. Steve Caplan says:

    American-made, eh?

    Ah, well. I’d love to see what their tax returns look like if their simple math is so messed up…

  9. Steve Caplan says:

    @Richard Wintle (BTW, you look a bit like this guy named Ricardipus who used to blog around here…) and @Austin

    1) There is certainly ample evidence out there that diet and exercise play a huge role in many forms of cancer, not necessarily limited to esophageal-gastric-colon-bowel. And just like cigarettes, nitrites in smoked meat have been directly linked with carcinogenesis, and there are hundreds of scientific papers backing that up. But one doesn’t have to be a celebrity nutritionist to read the writing on the wall with regard to salt, sugar and fats. They are linked to almost every chronic ailment out there, including cancer. Perhaps in 20 years people will look at some of the high fat/salt processed foods and ask: then why did people keep eating them back then?

    2) I would argue that fatty, sugary and salty food is extremely addictive. Perhaps not as much as nicotine, but with the availability and overwhelming amount of this kind of food to be found everywhere, it’s probably harder to stop than cigarettes. I guess we are “hardwired” to like the taste of sugar (ripe fruit from the trees) and fat (store up on the glycogen for the winter) from our cave-dwelling years.

    • Agreed. pretty much.

      On the specific one of processed / smoked meats, despite all the evidence about nitrites (which actually are there mainly just to preserve colouration, as I understand it) and carcinogenesis, the evidence for eating processed meats harming health turns out to be much less clear-cut than is often believed – David Colquhoun wrote a long and interesting post about this.

      This rather highlights another recurring problem with diet and health, which is that advice on the specifics is often conflicting / changeable / based on thin, if any, convincing epidemiology – despite the overall effect of diet on health/disease being clear.

      I think that’s why I’d argue you have to start with general advice like “eat less high sugar/salt food, more fresh stuff, take more exercise” – and concentrate on ways to highlight how your food choices are making those decisions – hence traffic lights, for instance. It would be a kind of present visual reminder to people as they shop that ‘you are what you eat’.

      • Steve Caplan says:

        I read DC’s very well-written and interesting blog on the link. For me, the “evidence” I saw in the popular media combined with a rather superficial look on PubMed a few years back seemed generally convincing. I suppose that if I had done a really thorough job like David Calhoun, perhaps I wouldn’t have been as convinced by the evidence. Having said that, since I am already predisposed to stay away from sausages and hot dogs and the like for their more obvious (rather than directly causal) detriments (high fat and calories), I didn’t take the time to examine the data more carefully.

        But yes, point taken about being careful with direct causal relationships. I had thought the evidence was better.

        • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

          “And just like cigarettes, nitrites in smoked meat have been directly linked with carcinogenesis, and there are hundreds of scientific papers backing that up.”

          Yeah yeah. I know that. I’ve been in cancer research for 14 years.

          But you can have my maple smoked bacon when you take it from my cold, dead hands.

  10. Frank says:

    I think the amount of fibre depends on whether you eat the wooden stick as well.

  11. mgg says:

    If only this could happen.
    My son’s first response was “what will happen to Halloween and Easter and Valentine’s day?

  12. John the Plumber says:

    Being a farmer as well as a plumber, my specialist subject is manure – well pushing it about in a wheel-barrow. – For too long agriculture has found it easier to spray neat nitrate and phosphate. As a consequence we now have barren soil. – The micro-organism link between plant and vitamins minerals and trace elements is what’s commonly known as dead.

    Our food is grown in a similar manner to my beiing reared on lard and toast, with sugar butties for seconds – as I recall from my long lost childhood when rationing was still in force after world war two.

    I digress – I think the compiler of your ice cream statistics has been reading the latest report on manure from DEFRA, the UK’s wondrous agricultural ministry, – It beggars belief. do take the trouble to type in the link. (Before I die of old age or something equally nasty I must work out how to make a link. – help please.)


    This tells you ‘Precisely and Exactly’ – how much nitro-phosphate to apply to have a good healthy ‘organic’ regime.

    I landed on this whilst trying to find the DEFRa report I read a few months back in which they happily reported that mineral vitamin trace-element levels in foodstuffs had gone down by some absurd figure like 60%. – Oh for the day they have to put a label on cabbages showing vitamin mineral and trace element content. – I would be not be surprised if cancer level statistics correlated nicely with decline in vitamin etc levels. – I just keep taking the multivit tablets in equal proportions to the cigarettes I am addicted to.

    However – a few statistics from DEFRA to put all into perspective.

    2010 income from UK farming – £4.38 billion – (Gov. income from tobacco tax £16 billion)

    30% of UK farms net annual income is less than £5.000.

    1.13% of the UK workforce is employed in agriculture. (My rough calculations make this 1 farmer for every 500 of the population)

    Next time you eat, just remember that one guy has produced your grub and there’s another 499 people in line behind at his door – and if he is one of those who only gets £5000 a year, he might give up on the idea of producing food altogether – and go and get a job with DEFRA .

    To boost his income DEFRA suggest ‘Diversification’ – defined as “The entrepenerial use of farm resources for a non agricultural purpose for commercial gain.” – That means ‘not growing food’. – That’s going to really help the 500 who rely on him for their loaves and fishes when he realises that commercial gain is vastly superior to shoving a wheel barrow.

    Meanwhile – The subject of course is ice-cream – I nearly forgot. – Other than a goodly proportion of frozen water and lots of air (Margaret Thatcher is famous for finding a scientific way to put even more air into ice-cream – honestly.) the basic ingredient of ice-cream used to creamy buttery cream from cows milk – as you might guess. – Then the world found it was cheaper to use surplus bacon fat and left-over fat from sausage-making – neatly described as non dairy fat. – Now I think they use second hand axle grease – (may be somebody can put me right on this – and on which is the unhealthiest option) – oh – and some sugar. .

    Of course sugar is a wondrous energy source – that’s why slaves were taken to the west indies to grow sugar to feed the millworkers of Great Britain’s industry – of course now we grow acres of sugarbeet to process into sugar, to give the unemployed energy to march to the dole – to the detriment of the South American sugar industry. – But not all is lost – South American sugar cane is now turned into alcohol so that the sugar cane workers can drive their cars to the sugarfields – to grow sugar. (I,m designing a small steam engine to fit my car so that I can run it by burning junk mail – most of it from DEFRA)

    Am I just getting too synical. – I don’t think so. – Remember the old song – “Give me a home, where the buffallo roam. Where the deer and the antelope play.” – Type Panhandle Texas in to Google Earth – press search – then zoom out – it’s a bit frightening. – It’s agriculture I think.

  13. John the Plumber says:

    O K so it made a link for me – I can do wonders with a wheel barrow – one day I’ll get the hang of a computer.

  14. Steve Caplan says:

    @Tim Smith

    Good thing you sorted out the math AFTER all the comments! Otherwise we’d have missed all the fun…

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