Fat-free half and half?

Companies that manufacture pre-packaged foods know that people are trying to eat at least a little healthier: cut the calories, cut the fat, cut the sugar.  That fact, of course, suggests an obvious marketing strategy — create the perception that your product is healthier, whatever the truth might actually be.  And in doing so, companies are probably banking on one of two things: (a) you don’t read the “nutrition facts” labels, or (b) you do read labels, but can’t do math.

One way to manipulate consumer perceptions is to play with “serving sizes,” a rather ambiguous benchmark.  In round numbers, for example, a typical carbonated beverage like Coke or Sprite will have somewhere around 100 calories per 8-ounce serving.  That makes sense if you’re talking about a 2-liter bottle from which you will pour a serving, then put it back in the fridge (assuming that you’re not using a cup that’s big enough to baptize a gorilla).

But single-serving cans of soda are 12 ounces, not 8; single-serving bottles are 20 ounces.  If you want to know how many calories are in that can or bottle, you’re going to have to multiply by 1-1/2 or 2-1/2 respectively (and who wants to do that?).  The can will have about 150 calories (by the way, that’s roughly three tablespoons of sugar), and the bottle, 250 calories (five tablespoons of sugar).

Thankfully, many manufacturers now list their serving sizes as “one can,” eliminating the need for calorie-conscious consumers to do the math.  But there are other ways to play the game.

One of the most hilarious examples of this kind of creative math is the product known as “fat-free half and half.”  The first time someone handed me a carton of this stuff, my face went blank with confusion.  Fat-free half and half?   What in the world could that be? 

I’ve always understood “half and half” to mean a mixture of half milk and half cream, a compromise between creaminess and calories.  That said, I’m guessing that it’s not a government-regulated term — in other words, there’s no federal guideline that says you can’t call something “half and half” if it doesn’t follow that 50-50 formula.

Here, then, is where the clever marketing comes in.  How do you create a product that can be labeled “half and half” and “fat-free” at the same time?  First, you have to start with the assumption that if the product simply has milk and cream in it, in whatever proportion, you can call it “half and half” without getting arrested.

On that basis, then, you start with skim milk (no fat there).  Add corn syrup (which contributes calories and a bit of richness, but no fat).   Then add in a tiny bit of cream (and, of course, a whole lot of other unnatural ingredients).  This is the tricky part: it has to be just enough cream so that the amount of fat in a “serving size” rounds down to zero (or, in label-speak, “adds a trivial amount of fat”).

That serving size, of course, is calculated to be small: typically two tablespoons.  But I can well imagine consumers putting much more than that in their coffee, thinking, “Hey, it’s fat-free, so I can use as much as I want.”  And that’s to say nothing of the contemporary research that suggests that if you’re worried about your weight, the corn syrup is much more of a problem than a bit of butterfat.

So prove the marketers wrong.  Read the labels.  Do the math.  And for the sake of the body God gave you, make wise choices.