How much stuff is in my food?
March 15, 2009 10:13 AM   Subscribe

How much stuff, proportionally, is in my food?

What proportion of the ingredients listed on my food are actually present? When my 2 litre bottle of Coke puts "high fructose corn syrup" right after "water," is it possible to estimate (or be reasonable certain about) how many grams of HFCS I'm actually consuming?

This question isn't particular to HFCS. I'm trying to keep to the take Michael Pollan's advice to heart, and I'd like to eat as much real food that my great-grandparents would have recognized as possible. Are reasonably precise amounts of ingredients publicly available information? Is the USDA nutrition info all we have to rely on?
posted by awenner to Food & Drink (21 answers total)
The only thing that they are required is to list them in order of proportion. So if "HFCS" is after "Water", then the amount of HFCS is less than the amount of Water.
posted by leafxor at 10:21 AM on March 15, 2009

I think part of the meaning of Pollan's piece of advice is that you buy raw/unpackaged food and staples, avoiding prepared foods with the ingredients lists that we've become accustomed to. That is to say, to meet the spirit of the advice for real, don't buy a frozen pizza with all natural ingredients, make your own pizza dough, sauce, and toppings.
posted by juliplease at 10:32 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

A little chemistry might be of use here.

Say you've got a can of Coke (which I have in front of me, a recently drunk 12-ounce can). In total, there is 12 ounces of fluid containing, in order of weight, water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, phosphoric acid, natural flavors, and caffeine.

There is 34 mg of caffeine per 12 fluid ounces of Coke. There is also a very small amount of caramel color needed to color the cola, so the phosphoric acid, natural flavors, and caffeine are, I'd estimate, less than half an ounce of the 12 ounces.

The proportion of syrup to water is pretty low, so I'd estimate the Coke syrup is at most three ounces of the 12 ounces of liquid.

Coke is, ergo, water.
posted by kldickson at 10:32 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

You can estimate on amounts of ingredients, but you can't get an exact amount.
posted by kldickson at 10:33 AM on March 15, 2009

You can estimate on amounts of ingredients, but you can't get an exact amount.

Is that because food producers aren't required to list proportions? How do people come up with statistics like "people eat x amounts of HFCS/anything else per year?"
posted by awenner at 10:37 AM on March 15, 2009

Also, I'm using Pollan's advice by way of illustration. I really do want to know how much stuff is actually in my food.
posted by awenner at 10:37 AM on March 15, 2009

Good point! Sorry about that, then, I think what I said counts as a derail.
posted by juliplease at 10:41 AM on March 15, 2009

A "serving" of Coke is 8 fl oz, or 240 ml. Coke is mostly water, so that should be about 240 grams. The nutrition label for U.S. coke lists 27 grams of carbohydrates, all of which are sugars. As these probably all come from the HFCS, you can estimate that a bit more than 10% of your Coke is HFCS (with the rest pretty much just water).

Coke's formula is secret; presumably it couldn't be such if they were required to specify exact proportions (and listings, for that matter) of ingredients.
posted by parudox at 10:42 AM on March 15, 2009

For Coke, the nutrition label will you tell you how much sugar is in a serving. You should be able to calculate volume of HFCS based on that, since it is basically the only source of sugar in Coke. According to, 100 g of HFCS provides only 26 g of dietary sugars. So, if that data is right and 8 oz of Coke contains 26 g of sugar, which it more or less does, and it's sweetened with HFCS, you'll be drinking 100 g of HFCS. IMHO.

That sort of deduction won't work for more obscure ingredients or complicated recipes, though.
posted by thirteenkiller at 10:51 AM on March 15, 2009

That nutritiondata HFCS info seems kinda really weird. Anyway.
posted by thirteenkiller at 10:54 AM on March 15, 2009

As you can see by parudox's example, if it's listed on the nutritional information chart you can figure out how much of something is in the food/drink. Proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and a few other things like vitamins and sodium will be listed. If you're trying to find out things beyond that it's going to be really difficult, beyond knowing vague proportions, like less than ingredients XYZ. You need lab analysis to know more. That's not going to be very cost-effective so if you truly want to know what goes into your food you're going to have to make it yourself from raw ingredients.
posted by 6550 at 10:57 AM on March 15, 2009

Also, a very simple upper bound: the nth place ingredient can make up no more than 1/n of the mass of the product. If you can estimate the amount of water added to the product and remove it from the calculation, you can refine this method a bit. If salt is an ingredient and is the sole source of sodium, then 2.5 times the sodium content should give you the amount of salt, which lets you make better estimates about ingredients on either side of salt.

(I try to eat food which has sufficiently short lists of ingredients that this method is useless.)
posted by parudox at 11:01 AM on March 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

awenner: to come up with the amount of HFCS / year, you could do pretty well just taking the average national production of HFCS, divide it by an estimate of how much food gets discarded or exported, and then divide that by the number of people in the US.
posted by aubilenon at 11:03 AM on March 15, 2009

For soda fountains, the ration is around 7:1 water to concentrate. So let's assume that there's roughly 250ml of cola syrup in the 2 litre bottle; knowing that HFCS is, itself a 3:1 carb/water solution, you can extrapolate from that and the nutritional labelling the amount of HFCS.

(When you're making Kool-Aid from a packet, you see how much sugar goes into the pitcher.)

Ultimately, Pollan's point is that the more ingredients are listed on the container, the less control you have over your diet, because that kind of proportionate data isn't readily available. If anything, Coke is an easy one to separate out (compared to something like a Twinkie) because it's lots of water, quite a bit of HFCS, and tiny, nutritionally-insignificant amounts of everything else.
posted by holgate at 11:06 AM on March 15, 2009

So to get this straight: the nutritional information tells me the amounts of raw ingredients/chemical necessary to keep me alive and healthy, but does so in a way that still obscures what I'm really eating?

This is so interesting. I used HFCS in the question since it's a good example of a boogie-food, but I'm equally interested in learning how much, say, oats or corn products or MSG I'm consuming over a given time span.

Parudox - I've been wondering if your solution might work. Since the ingredients need to be listed in order of proportion (though without specifying the precise proportion), there might be a way to work out the answer given the place of the ingredient on the list.

Then again, this reinforces my feeling that the FDA isn't really looking out for our best interests.
posted by awenner at 12:00 PM on March 15, 2009

Then again, this reinforces my feeling that the FDA isn't really looking out for our best interests

If the FDA required manufacturers to precisely list of their ingredients and amounts, then any joe schmoe could recreate it, and why would anyone pay a premium for Coke anymore?

The FDA's job is to make sure that we're not eating arsenic-laced meat or that unsafe chemicals don't get into your food. HFCS is not an unsafe food. It's not a healthy food either, but forcing you to eat only healthy or natural foods hardly falls under their jurisdiction.

Also note that healthy != natural, despite what some the hype would have you believe. While I appreciate some of the spirit of what Pollan says, taking it to its logical extreme is a little ridiculous. Fructose has the same chemical composition, regardless of whether it comes from a can of Coke or from biting into an apple, and your body processes it the same way. As long as you're taking in appropriate amounts of all the nutrients you need, you'll be doing fine. It just happens that many vegetables are a very efficient way to provide those nutrients, along with a healthy dose of dietary fiber, etc.
posted by chrisamiller at 1:23 PM on March 15, 2009

chrisamiller has it: the FDA was not originally conceived as having jurisdiction over nutritional matters. It was originally designed to prevent manufacturers from cutting their food with inferior products, watering things down, or using unsafe ingredients. It was created in an era when there was actually real danger of processed food being contaminated by chemical and biological hazards because of lax production safety standards, and by consumers being deceived as to the content of what they were eating because manufacturers would just lie. How much of something you need is actually a ridiculously politicized determination which, even now, the FDA isn't set up very well to handle. But they're doing a fantastic job of requiring manufacturers to give you an all-but-exhaustive list of what, exactly, is in your food.

This is actually a lot more effective at achieving a high quality of food on the shelves than mandating/prohibiting certain items (though occasionally prohibitions are warranted and effective) because people don't generally choose to eat crap when better food is similarly priced. By making manufacturers actually declare that they're feeding you ground week-old horse instead of grade A beef, consumers can and do make intelligent choices.

But Pollan's point is that the attempt to live on "nutrients" as opposed to "food" is wrongheaded. If you put all the chemicals that go into, say, broccoli, in a tube and drank it, that wouldn't be as good for you as broccoli. Same goes for pretty much everything. And it's even worse when manufacturers add things which technically count as a given "nutrient" to boost the health ratings on the side of the box but that don't actually have any real nutritional value at all. A good recent example is fiber. Yes, polydextrose is technically "fiber", but even though it's going to take a massive amount of polydextrose to do the same good for you as a few ounces of All Bran, manufacturers are allowed to count it as "fiber" when reporting nutritional information.

This is silly.

Pollan's point is not that you need to take control over what goes in your food, but that your eating habits should make that irrelevant. Yeah, I could give you a breakdown of the ingredients in tomatoes, but dammit, they're tomatoes. I don't care how much water/sugar/fiber/salt is in them, they're vegetables and they're good for you. Eat more of them. And onions, and homemade bread with real flour, and fresh meat and fish, etc. Stick to those and you'll be a lot healthier than trying to titrate exactly how much polyunsaturated fat you ate last month, which you can't really do anyways.
posted by valkyryn at 2:08 PM on March 15, 2009 [4 favorites]

It's kind of ironic that food mfg's are not required to list percentages of each ingredient, but take a look at any garden pesticide/insecticide and you'll see specific percentages of all active ingredients.
posted by webhund at 5:38 PM on March 15, 2009

If you put all the chemicals that go into, say, broccoli, in a tube and drank it, that wouldn't be as good for you as broccoli.

That's a ridiculous statement. There is no difference between throwing broccoli in a blender and throwing exactly the same amounts of simple sugars, complex sugars, thaimin, riboflavin, etc. into a blender. People could even synthesize cellulose matrices to give roughage, if you wanted to go that far. In that sense, there's no difference between natural and manufactured.

Your point about fiber is right on, though. If companies are allowed to label two non-equivalent molecules as the same thing, and there are differences in the health benefits between the two, then maybe we should be requiring them to make a distinction on the label. That gets at the heart of this question.

Look OP, I'm not necessarily an advocate of Pollan's work, but if you're trying to follow his advice, then valkyryn has it. You shouldn't be reading nutrition labels, because you should be buying foods without them - fruits, vegetables, cuts of meat - not mechanically extruded breakfast cereals.
posted by chrisamiller at 7:00 PM on March 15, 2009

Excellent answers, all.

Again, I'm looking at the spirit of what Pollan is saying, not necessarily the logical extreme. I'm curious about how much of certain ingredients I'm consuming over the long term, and what effect that's having on a body (mine) built to be omnivorous. I'm just skeptical and a little worried about what eating so much processed corn might be doing to me, to say nothing of the little chemically bits of preservatives and flavor enhancers.

My original plan was to try and locate a database (or something similar) so that when I track my diet, I could put together a chart of ingredients listed by proportion, but I guess that's impossible.

Thanks for the help!
posted by awenner at 9:48 PM on March 15, 2009 might be worth taking a look at, they break down the nutrition info into nice looking graphs and charts and such.
posted by rux at 8:25 PM on March 19, 2009

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