CHICAGO — The American Beverage Association did me a huge favor last week: It gave me a little help at some vending machines.
The association announced a pilot program to list calorie counts of beverages sold in machines, along with the inclusion of more low-calorie and no-calorie drinks. The machines will be tested in municipal buildings in Chicago and San Antonio early next year.
The ABA confirmed for me that its effort at getting consumers to realize what they’re putting in their bodies isn’t a hollow one — when the calorie counts are flashed, the would-be purchaser of the can or bottle of soda will learn how many calories there are in the entire container, not just the number of calories per serving. It’s in line with the association’s initiative to display total calorie counts on the front of all beverage containers up to 20 ounces.
This is huge. If this becomes the standard, it will confirm to my sons what mom’s been saying all along: It is the total number of calories in a food product, not the per-serving calories, that counts.
It’s tough being a nutrition-minded parent of two teen boys who just don’t understand that a container is not a serving. A few days ago, I bought my younger son the rare treat of a roll of bubble gum tape. The negotiations over how much he could chew stalled because the label didn’t provide calorie information. So we check the Internet to learn the nutrition information. We discovered that the entire two-ounce package contained 18 servings. Had he stuffed the entire package into his mouth, as so many kids do, he would have downed about 200 calories.
My older son and I have gone to war over Pop-Tarts because they’re frequently advertised in pairs, and packaged in pairs, although only one Pop-Tart is considered a serving. Kids complain that one Pop-Tart doesn’t come close to filling them up. But at 200 calories and nearly 40 grams of sugar, one serving is more than enough. I now avoid the hassle by never buying Pop-Tarts.
Images implying a larger serving size — c’mon, who eats just one Pop-Tart or just one bowl of high-sugar cereal? — fly in the face of what the nutrition facts on the side of the package tell us what a single serving is.
For instance, kids all across have always considered the classic two-ounce box of Nabisco’s “Barnum’s Animals” as one serving. Taking down that big game with a glass of milk as an after-school snack was never healthy. But today the box’s nutrition information will tell you that all those years, you were actually consuming two servings per box.
Luckily, not all snack-makers get cute with their calorie counts. The Hostess Snack Cake Company marks each of its double Twinkie, six-donut and two-cupcake packages as one big calorie-laden serving.
So, flashing calories on drink vending machines is a great start. Beverage companies still have a long way to go toward making people aware of the nutritional impact of what they drink, but providing honest calorie counts and more low-sugar choices truly arms me for the food battles parents have to fight every day.
Esther Cepeda is syndicated columnist and an NBC Latino Contributor.