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The Metric Way to Sweeten Up America

Why have U.S. food companies been so eager to embrace the metric system — at least on their food labels?

June 26, 2003

Why have U.S. food companies been so eager to embrace the metric system — at least on their food labels?

Gerald Ford is widely seen as a big failure as president of the United States. The poor man served less than a full term in office, failed to get elected and managed to tumble out of Air Force One in plain view of television cameras.

Nevertheless, his most derided initiative no doubt was an attempt to make America go metric. Not that it couldn't be done — the Canadians, following a major nationwide effort, now happily measure distances in kilometers — and buy their gasoline in liters.

But in the United States, the idea was a catastrophic failure, adamantly opposed at the time and not revisited since.

The rest of the world can extol the convenience of the metric system, but Americans simply don't understand all those grams and hectares.

But isn't it convenient that the U.S. food industry is using grams — and not ounces — when it comes to food labeling? Americans' aversion to metric measures seems to suit the industry just fine.

The result is the best of all worlds: The producers are in compliance with government regulations for disclosing food ingredients.

But as the same time, few consumes actually understand what their food labels tell them — thus ensuring that they won't be put off by large doses of sugars or fat.

Take a look at your average soda pop bottle. Mountain Dew — in this day and age of health consciousness and athletic prowess — has been successfully marketed to a generation of hip, physically active youngsters.

You're doubtless familiar with its "Do the Dew" pitch. A 12-ounce can of the stuff contains 45 grams of sugar. Is it a lot — or a little?

Most Americans have no idea. The only place they have encountered grams is in their high school chemistry classes or at their pharmacist. There, a gram seems like a very tiny quantity.

In reality, 45 grams is a huge — even obscene — amount of sugar. A serving size of Domino sugar, America's top brand of packaged sugar, is one teaspoon, an equivalent of just 4 grams.

This means that a can of Mountain Dew your kid knocks down without even thinking contains more than 11 standard servings of sugar.

If the sugar content of products such as soda was listed in terms that are more familiar to most American consumers, they might have gotten a scare of their lives.

How about 1.6 ounces of sugar in a 12 ounce can—or nearly 15% of pure sugar by volume? The actual sight of 45 grams of sugar would be even more shocking.

It is, believe it or not, one-tenth of the standard 1-pound box of sugar you buy at the supermarket, which at the average household lasts at least a month.

When President George H.W. Bush signed The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act into law in November of 1990, U.S. consumers were deemed the big winners. The measure certainly introduced a lot of transparency and cracked down on fraudulent claims by some food producers.

But by opting for grams instead of other units of measurement much more familiar to most Americans, the law ultimately made things easier for those food producers who want to keep consumers in the dark about how unhealthy their products really are.

Fast food chains such as Burger King now have posters listing the nutritional value of their meals and the content of sugar, salt and fat — in grams, of course.

But this is not the whole story. If you think you know your serving size, think again.

Most soda in the United States comes in 12-oz cans, which cannot be resealed and will go flat if not consumed immediately upon opening. Yet, the standard serving size, according to larger soda bottles, is only 8 oz.

Not surprisingly, an 8-oz serving size (compared to the 12-oz can) has one-third "less" sugar and "fewer" calories. The same miniature serving size — which has nothing to do with how much people actually eat — has been adopted by manufacturers of potato chips, cheese doodles, salted peanuts and other junk food.

Curious that it may be, while some Americans' belt-sizes inch into sumo-wrestler land, their food conscience — and statistical self-perception — is wonderful. All those munchies are but a tiny percentage of the required daily intake.

One area where this deliberate oversight manifests itself particularly ardently comes when you order that all-American great, the sandwich. Try to find a fast-food place, school cafeteria or even restaurant where the plate is not loaded with a mound of salt potato chips. And up goes the count.

Use of the metric system may be viewed by some as a conspiracy to keep the American public ignorant. But it is a conspiracy in which the victim is a fully fledged co-conspirator as well. Learning to translate grams into ounces is not such a difficult skill.

Nor does it require graduate-level mathematics to understand that when a supermarket sells you hamburger meat that is advertised as "70% fat-free" it means that the other 30% is pure fat.

The net effect of deceptive food labels is to induce U.S. consumers to stop thinking for themselves.

And now, to keep them even more securely in the state of complacent ignorance, clothing manufacturers, too, have gotten in the act. Apparently, what sells at your local Wal-Mart as size 10 today used to be size 14 a couple of decades ago.

The only stumbling block for this happy game has been health statistics. Reports show an alarming increase in obesity everywhere in the United States, and an epidemic of resultant diseases — diabetes, stroke, heart problems and various forms of cancer. But this is patients we're talking about, not consumers.