Popped Secret

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

Popcorn is a very New World food. It is amazing that in ideal conditions the kernels of unpopped popcorn can be stored almost indefinitely. Corn was first domesticated in Mexico about 9000 years ago. As a young boy, I recall a friend showing me a popcorn pan with a hand-crank on the lid. We were watching an old movie and he wanted to make something special. My friend placed oil into the pan and heated it, he then tossed in a measured amount of popping corn. Normally, at that point one would  immediately put the lid on to keep from being splashed if it started popping immediately. He next tossed in some sugar. The handle was part of a wire sweeper that could push the corn around. This was done until the popcorn had finished popping, and for the first time I had popcorn with a sugar coating. At that age it seemed exotic. At that point in my life I gave no thought to how much extra energy was imparted by the introduction of sugar. The agitator was a nice addition. Generally when popping popcorn in a pan one would need to continuously shake the pan forward and backward to keep the popcorn from burning. Popping popcorn at home was an acquired skill. Popcorn balls (generally colored in some fashion) were often handed out at Halloween in my small town as a treat. The largest documented popcorn ball is 2.4 meters in diameter, 7.5 meters in circumference, with a mass of 1549 Kilograms (well over a Megagram). Popcorn was also strung on thread to decorate Christmas trees during the winter holiday season.

In China and Korea a sealed cast-iron canister with popcorn inside is used like a rotisserie  over a fire.  When a pressure gauge on the container reaches a threshold value, the canister is taken from the flame, a canvas sack placed over the top and the seal broken. With a large boom, the popcorn explodes all at once. It is then poured into the canvas bag.

The first popcorn was popped by hand (sometimes over an open fire), and  was later automated with steam powered mechanisms designed in the late 19th century. This new popcorn popper was introduced at the 1893 Colombian Exposition. When I was a boy we purchased sealed plastic bags of popcorn kernels with Jolly Time printed onto the transparent film. The big change in popcorn preparation came when General Mills obtained the first patent for bagged microwave popcorn in 1981. This made popping popcorn much more convenient and a surge in popcorn consumption followed. People also ceased to see popcorn kernels any longer as they now come in an opaque bag.

Microwave popcorn allows one to eat popcorn with a very consistent serving size in terms of mass and volume. This consistency would be great for those who are trying to monitor their food energy intake. When I first attempted to determine the energy content of popcorn I was very surprised at the low value. The serving size per bag is about 3 and the serving size is 1 cup popped or three cups. This works out to 90 Calories (377 KJ). My significant other (SO) immediately doubted this value. It had to be higher. In recent years it has been emphasized that we should go back to Olde English only nutrition labels. One can see this from the nutrition labels that Ye Olde English is still Kyng. Here is the nutrition label for Pop Secret’s Homestyle Microwave Popcorn:

Pop-Secret-Label-1

So if the servings per bag is about three, and the serving size is two tablespoons unpopped, then it would be a total of 3*150 Calories or 450 Calories (1884 KJ). The fact that the serving size is given as 2 tablespoons unpopped and 1 cup popped seems to indicate an equivalence. So which is it? Ninety Calories per bag or 450 Calories per bag? This difference is a factor of five! The range given on the web for a single bag of Pop Secret Homestyle was from around 400-500 Calories or so. When I looked at the bag after popping, and used my 100 mm wide hand to measure it, the bag appeared to be somewhere around two liters in volume, but I had no idea how many cups that might be. I could immediately estimate the value in metric, but could not do the same with Ye Olde English.  My SO and myself then conducted an experiment, we popped a bag and measured it with a one cup measure. It turned out to be somewhere from about 10-12 cups of popped popcorn. It would seem that each bag contains about 6 tablespoons of unpopped popcorn, and 15 cups when popped, but the nutrition label does not say that.

When converted to metric the clarity has not increased much:

Nutrition Facts
Serving Size  15 mL unpopped  237 mL popped

Amount            15 mL     237 mL
Per Serving      Unpopped   Popped

Calories           150        30

So 15 mL of popcorn becomes about half of a 500 mL bottle of soda or water. Does that make sense or not? I was able to estimate the volume of a popped bag at about two liters or 2000 mL.  Given about 200 mL per serving 2 liters would be about ten servings or 300 Calories. Clearly the value would not be 90 Calories.

In my view this label has been designed to confuse. Who eats unpopped popcorn? Who even sees the unpopped popcorn in a sealed opaque paper bag? How would you estimate the unpopped amount when you can’t even see it! One would immediately look  at the label assume 3 cups per bag at 30 Calories per cup and compute 90 Calories total. There have been moves to go back to Ye Olde English from metric for US nutrition labels to make them more “understandable.” The Pop Secret label is unclear in metric and even more inaccessible in Ye Olde English. It could have been written:

Nutrition Facts

Calories per bag: 450

Servings per bag: 3

Calories per serving 150.

Calories per cup 30

Volume of bag: approximately 2500 mL

The nutrition label as it is originally formatted appears to be designed to mislead consumers into believing that microwave popcorn contains far less calories than it does. This in turn causes the person to consume more calories and hence more product while blowing their estimated food energy intake.

Profiting from measurement confusion and misinterpretation is often thought to be a thing of the past. It is clearly not—and never has been. I have a measuring scoop provided inside my laundry detergent box which has a volume twice that recommended for each wash. It has a line halfway up its side which is the recommended volume. People don’t notice the transparent line, or read the tiny instructions, and generally fill the scoop up to the top, using twice the recommended amount of soap. People who see the importance of implementing the metric system, and the teaching of basic numeracy as fringe issues in the United States, are but ignorant marks for our modern industrialized hucksters.

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The Metric Maven has published a new book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.

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Weight Watchers and Measures

By The Metric Maven

Filmmaker Amy Young, who is making a documentary film entitled: The State of The Unit: The Kilogram, has met her goal on Kickstarter. Thanks to everyone who contributed.  $22.7 K so far and needs to raise a total of $26.8 K (i.e. $4,100 more) in the next seven days to fund her film. Please consider donating to her Kickstarter campaign here. If you have contributed already, thanks. Now the blog.

My Youngest sister has been a member of Weight Watchers (WW) for many years. It has worked well for her, and continues to do so. The WW members have discussion threads where they talk about how to compute Weight Watchers points from food labels. The use of grams and Calories (versus calories) and kilojoules is a perennial topic for discussion. Here is an entry by SCHILA which my sister shared with me concerning an Italian food label:

This causes a face-palm. I realize that it’s not her fault, it’s our lack of the exclusive use of the metric system in the US, and how the incompatible mixture of metric and non-metric units pervades our culture which is to blame. One can immediately see that the Nutritional Information (NI) is actually all metric—in a sense. The Calorie is a pre-SI unit of energy, which was replaced by the Joule in 1948. The Calorie was “metric” 65 years ago.

According to Wikipedia:

Definitions of the calorie fall into two classes:

  • The small calorie or gram calorie (symbol: cal)[2] approximates the energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 °C at standard atmospheric pressure (101.325 kPa). This is approximately 4.2 joules.
  • The large calorie, kilogram calorie, dietary calorie, nutritionist’s calorie or food calorie (symbol: Cal)[2] approximates the energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 °C. This is exactly 1,000 small calories or approximately 4.2 kilojoules.

The difference between a calorie and a Calorie is a factor of 1000 in the US. Why shouldn’t SCHILA be confused. The label has Cal 122 KCAL which is a capitalized Calorie abbreviation, which then tries to make it more understandable by putting it in all caps as KCAL, which of course could be confused for Kilo-Kilo-calories. No wonder the poor woman is on a discussion thread asking for help. The logical solution to me is to be done with calories and Calories (1000 calories or a kilocalorie), switch to SI (official metric) and use kilojoules—like the rest of the world.

Here is a package of licorice from Australia (courtesy of Mike Joy). It is advertised as one meter long. The front of the package has only one mass (weight) given: 120 grams. That’s it!  You don’t need any other information.

On the back the nutritional information is:

Nutrional Label for Australian Licorice

We see that the Australian food vendors also use untidy numbers like 4.8 servings in a package. The serving size is 25 grams which is 353 kilojoules, that’s it! Every other description: protein, sugar, sodium and so on are broken out in grams or milligrams.

Ok, how many kJ’s do you get a day? Well in the US I generally see 2000 Calories on food labels as the recommended daily intake. This works out to about 8375 kilojoules. Look how many kJ’s you get! Doesn’t that sound better than 2000 Calories? Here is a short table to give you an idea of the range of kJ’s and the old way:

5000 kilojoules is 1194 Calories (1200)
5500 kilojoules is 1313 Calories (1300)
6000 kilojoules is 1433 Calories (1400)
6500 kilojoules is 1552 Calories (1500)
7000 kilojoules is 1671 Calories (1600)
8000 kilojoules is 1910 Calories (1900)
8500 kilojoules is 2030 Calories (2000)

So for many WW members somewhere between 5000 and 8500 kJ’s is the range for you to think about. The Australian Government has recently sponsored a push to get Australians to eat around 8700 kilojoules per day. Here is a page from their website:

click to enlarge image

So what does the back of a licorice label in the US look like? This is from Twizzler’s web page:

Not all that that different, other than the use of Calories (i.e. kilocalories). So what’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is that because the US is not exclusively metric like Australia, very few Americans have any idea what a gram is. (It is about the weight of a plain chocolate m&m). This lack of exclusive metric adoption in the US obscures dietary data that is readily available. Any confusion will cause many people to just not bother with the nutritional information.

Should we go back to Ye Olde English units on food packaging?—well they’re actually Olde English sizes used prior to the English reforming their units in 19th Century, but we’ll let that pass for now. Some people who believe claim they are trying to help the public say yes. These people are from the anti-metric Wall Street Journal, and like James Taranto are there to yelp—I mean “help.” Their anti-metric “Numbers Guy” seems to be more interested in running a numbers racket than actually enlightening people about numbers.

When the Wall Street Journal is on the side of the Center for Science in the Public Interest–watch out–what they have in mind is not in the public interest. They want teaspoons and tablespoons back! I’ve already written about how confusion between the two, and the lack of metric in the US kills about 98,000 persons in the US each year. It would also make our nutritional labeling completely incompatible with the rest of the world—which all use metric. They want to swap mass (grams) for volume (Tsp, Tbl)? Isn’t it bad enough we use ounces interchangeably for weight and volume already?  Do you think 8 (by weight) ounces of cheese doodles is a cup (8 oz by volume) of them? The Wall Street Journal has never found a bad Weights and Measures idea they didn’t like.

The frustration the rest of the world has with us is completely understandable and surfaces on the WW discussion thread:

All I can say is You Go Girl!

What started this WW discussion thread was a question about the nutrition label on the back of an Italian food product. If all our US packaging was in teaspoons and tablespoons, and grams became even more unfamiliar, this would further alienate us from 95% of the worlds population and their products. I guess the Wall Street Journal just can’t help themselves—they like trade barriers. Once again the inability of our legislators to pass mandatory metric only legislation for the US, with a plan, and funding, and so on, hurts the nations physical and economic health. Congress has been goofing around since 1866 thinking about metric, isn’t it time they finally got to work and dealt with the metrication issue?