Don’t judge a food by its cover

December is notorious for its torrent of celebrations most of which seem to revolve around food and drinks of such exorbitant richness they can only be justified once a year.

The “month to indulge” is nestled right beside “the month to start doing everything right” (eating healthier and losing weight has held first place in New Year’s resolution standings for decades) spurring many of us to get healthy quick before the get-out-of-jail-free card is gone and we’re expected to be healthy.

Some try to chip away at that holiday guilt by doing our baking with products that contain less sugar saturated fat and trans fat. Once January rolls around most of us are eating better for reasons of health resolutions or simply to flush all that December excess out of our systems. All of which are good and noble pursuits but often futile if you read the front of a package exclusively and don’t back it up with information from the nutrition label.

Food companies are smart and with billions of marketing dollars behind them there are all sorts of ways to make a relatively unhealthy product appear wholesome. A few examples:

• Strawberry Special K Bars touted as the breakfast or pre-gym snack of choice for the athletic and successful contain gram for gram more sugar and less fibre than Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookies. (Guess which I’d rather snack on.)

• Multigrain Cheerios comes across as a healthier higher-in-fibre version of the original particularly since dieticians have been publicizing it as a healthy snack option when following Canada’s Food Guide . In reality Multigrain Cheerios have the exact same amount of fibre as regular Cheerios six times the sugar and half as much protein. On top of all that it costs more as you get less in the box.

• Chocolate milk is featured in a slew of TV ads often anthropomorphized as a depressed psychiatric patient complaining that people don’t understand that it is “just as nutritious as white milk.” Sure chocolate milk contains calcium and vitamin D. So do oats greens tuna salmon nuts legumes etc. What they don’t mention is that chocolate milk also contains as much sugar as pop and 80 per cent more calories. (On its website Dairy Farmers of Canada states: “Preschoolers should drink at least two cups of chocolate or white milk per day.” Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating recommends two to three servings for children and three to four servings for youth. How is this helping our obesity rates?)

• Splenda Brown Sugar Blend is marketed to bakers. It’s a blend of real brown sugar and Splenda with a hefty price tag. If you actually read the package you may notice that you only need to use half as much Splenda as you would sugar (it’s apparently sweeter — is there a sweetness gauge I don’t know about?) unlike other versions of Splenda that instruct you to use it cup for cup in place of actual sugar. This message doesn’t always get through though — people habitually use the same quantity of sugar in their coffee and such and the attitude with all kinds of low-fat or low-sugar products tends to be “it’s Splenda so I can eat more of it!”

If you compare Splenda Brown Sugar Blend versus regular brown sugar you’ll find that they contain exactly the same amount of sugars and carbohydrates per teaspoon but the Splenda blend has more calories. That’s right — Splenda Brown Sugar Blend has more calories than plain brown sugar — 20 calories per teaspoon versus 15. This is why they tell you to use half as much — something you could do with regular brown sugar anyway. People think of it as a freebie but in reality you’re actually consuming more calories even if you eat the exact same amount.

• Lard has been known by generations of grandmas to produce the flakiest most ethereal of pie crusts. In recent years we have shunned lard in favour of Crisco all-vegetable shortening and more recently non-hydrogenated Crisco and Tenderflake. While stocking up on butter tart ingredients for a New Year’s Eve blowout I instinctively reached for the non-hydrogenated Tenderflake. It surprised me that old-fashioned pure lard still lingered on the shelf next to it but I figured there must still be old-school bakers that insist on keeping the lard-makers in business. I grabbed a box just out of curiosity to compare the nutritional breakdown.

The difference? Absolutely nothing. Tenderflake non-hydrogenated lard: four grams of saturated fat and 0.1 grams of trans fat per serving. No-name pure lard: four grams of saturated fat and 0.1 grams of trans fat per (same) serving.

This could be due to the fact that no one produces real lard anymore so companies like Superstore that carry its own generic brands can’t get the old stuff co-packed leaving them to sell what has become the norm. (This is how it works: a company like Superstore doesn’t have its own factories set up to manufacture everything from lard to film to diapers so foodstuffs are produced by companies that generate similar products already.) This isn’t to say either is a particularly nutritious choice but for whatever reason it would appear we’re paying double to have the words “non-hydrogenated” splashed across the front of the box.

The moral of this story: read the back of the package not the front.