Labels: Nutrition VS Our Own

I was shopping with my partner on the weekend and besides our weekly nutritional reload, she needed to pick up a few items for work. One of those items were some form of snack bars for a group of kids who were coming through their training centre, which led to an interesting insight for both of us.

My partner had initially suggested Uncle Toby’s Musli Bars for the snacks, as they taste good and are cost-effective. However, there had been some conjecture as to the sugar content of these bars and two alternative preferences - Clif Bars and Bounce Balls - had been made. It was decided that less sugar was worthing paying for, particularly when there is a chance to set an example for junior athletes. This makes sense.

Due exclusively to the fact I was at the shops when the items were being purchased, I was [self] appointed as the independent nutrition expert in charge of procuring the snack bars for the junior athletes, with sugar content being the primary consideration. The conclusions we came to were not what I expected.

Here are the nutrition information comparisons for the three options outlined above.

Nutrition Information Per Serve


Uncles Toby’s was the clear winner for the sugar content, which wasn’t what I expected prior to analysis. But when I thought about it full, it actually makes sense.

It is remiss to compare these all three bars as snack foods because they are ultimately different products. The Uncle Toby’s bars are musli snack bars, hence they are found in that section of the supermarket. However, the Clif Bar and Bounce Ball are sports nutrition products, which is why they are found alongside the protein bars and formulas in a supermarket.

The Uncle Toby’s bars are formulated to be snacks, whereas the other bars are there to support sports performance or long-duration activity such as hiking, rock climbing, etc. When you look at the packaging, this is well-labelled. Of course, not every store is big enough to split these into different sections, but the gist is that they aren’t marketed as the same products.

The problem is that many people see them as the same products - bars that are consumed as snacks or with a piece of fruit. In the eyes of many people, including myself at first, these are comparable products. So let’s make some comparisons.

The Uncle Toby’s (UT) bar was initially rejected because of sugar content. Interestingly, it has the lowest sugar content per serve (5.8g) and contains 71% less sugar than the Clif Bar (CB) and 40% less than the Bounce Ball (BB).

The UT bar contained the lowest energy content (510kJ) - 51% less than the CB and 31% less than the BB.

The BB and CB both contained 10 g of protein per serve, which was significantly higher than the UT bar (2.2g).

The cost per serve of the UT bar was $0.33, almost 10x less than the other two bars. While this has no impact on the nutrition content, it will influence purchasing decisions, particularly for large groups.

When it came to sugar and cost, which were identified as important, the UT bar was the clear winner.

To reiterate, the Clif Bar and Bounce Ball should have a higher content of all these nutrients because that’s what is required in their intended use. In addition, you would pick up the higher-energy bars for a hike or particular event once per week/fortnight - not many people would be spending $3 each day on these as snack bars.

Unpacking Our Own Beliefs

The analysis above begs one big question: why do we rely on our own beliefs when there is a comprehensive nutrition label available?

To understand this, I think we need to go back one step.

Let’s say we have two chocolate chip musli bars from different manufacturers. The bars are the same serving size and similar shape, but they are of different nutrition composition (one has twice as much sugar as the other).

We can’t eyeball the nutrition content - no one could give an accurate nutrition breakdown of either food just by looking at it. Most people probably couldn’t even tell which bar belonged to which brand, without a label, unless one had a distinct marking (ie. yoghurt line or something similar). The point is that we can gain very little information from the food itself.

This is partly why home-brand food items often outperform expectations in blind taste tests, and why people who say they ‘hate Pepsi and only drink Coke’ cannot tell the difference between the two when the bottle is gone.

The packaging and marketing of a food has an impact on our perceptions. We often assume foods that are labelled as ‘HIGH PROTEIN’ are meant to be good for building muscle and losing weight, even before we look to see how much protein, carbohydrate and fat is contained in there. Often the protein isn’t even that high (<15g per serve) and there is substantially more carbohydrate and fat in the product.

One of the challenges with these claims is that they are often relative to their own products. So a food item might have ‘33% LESS FAT’ than a previous formula, but it’s still 25% more fat than another option on the shelf. However, most people read this as 33% less fat than the competition.

While it’s easy to get upset about these selective marketing claims, often we forget about the additional information we pick up that influences our own thoughts. These are often independent of any creative marketing that gets emphasised in the package design or who is associated with the brand.

We often bias our own opinions of certain foods from the experiences we gather. We see other people eating foods and it can impact our perceptions of these foods. For example, we notice that the ‘fit guy’ in the office who always brings a healthy lunch with grains, lean meat and vegetables begins to snack on a Clif Bar in the afternoon three days per week. We associate fit with healthy, so the bar is looking like a good nutrition option.

Then we draw some further conclusions that enhance or reject our appreciation of the food. We have spoken to fit guy about nutrition before and we know he likes to keep sugar intake low. This is further evidenced by the lunch he brings every day, so he obviously practices what he preaches. Using this logic, it’s easy to think that the Clif Bar must also be low sugar because of who is consuming it. But maybe - definitely - we are reading too much into it...

In fact, the Clif Bar might be a snack before a long training session he has planned after work and he doesn’t like to eat too much beforehand. Or, it could even be that his diet had been too low in carbohydrate to maintain his fit lifestyle, so now he needs the Clif Bar to bump up energy intake before the session. The problem is we rarely find out these specifics, we just rely on our impression (ie. he eats low-sugar, this must be too).

Of course, this can go the other way. Maybe someone in the office who is overweight eats the Uncle Toby’s bar for lunch every day, so we start to think there is an association between the two. We think: ‘if only they would eat something with less sugar, like the fit guy!’.

Whilst all the information we need is contained on the nutritional label and can easily be found online, often we don’t take our analysis that far. Instead, we rely on heuristics that often lead to a bias that doesn’t necessarily serve us well.

Think to when you are acquiring most food, in the shopping centre, do you really want to check every nutrition label while you are there? Most people have enough running through their head in the shopping centre - the list, managing kids, trying to navigate people trying to text and trolley, etc - that the last thing they want to do read every nutrition label they see.

How To Be More Nutrition Rational

The best thing to do is read the nutrition label to see what food contains. Australia has strict nutrition guidelines that must be adhered to for any of the packaged foods that you will find in a supermarket. Many fast food restaurants also contain energy content on their menus, alongside nutrition information that you can request in-store or look up online.

I know what you are thinking: “of course he would say that - just look everything up!”

Just because the information is out there doesn’t mean you need to look at it all the time. Check every third or fourth item at the supermarket and compare it to similar products, you might just be surprised. It will only take a few weeks to compare the entire trolley, but you won’t have to spend two hours on any individual shop.

Just being more aware of foods labels can get you into the habit of checking out new options that you pick up in the store. When you pick it up, you will have the other nutrition labels to use as a reference point for comparison (ie. where is this food better/worse than the current choice). This has the additional benefit of simplifying your shop, because instead of comparing to all other options you simply compare to the current selection.

The second thing is to be aware of your own biases and how they come about. We are good at determining that celebrities may not even use the product they promote, it’s just a commercial arrangement, but maybe this makes us more sensitive to non-commercial arrangements...

Instead of taking the word of friends, or friends of friends, as gospel, take the time to verify these claims. Most people are well-intentioned and want to be of value, but they haven’t always taken the time to verify their own claims. So whether they believe

So next time you find yourself putting your own label on a food, take the time to check out the nutrition information on the foods own label to see whether the two compute. You might just be surprised… I was!

Tom Fitzgerald