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The zero-calorie conundrum

Published Sep. 3, 2005

Life has many paradoxes, and many of them involve food. The stuff that tastes the best, for example, hurts you the most. Also, 10-to-a-pack hot dogs, but eight-to-a-pack buns. Also, the fact that the same species that likes lobster bisque will also happily eat those big, spongy, peach-colored candy peanuts made from what appears to be industrial packing material. And so forth.

But I am right now looking at one of the most amazing of all food paradoxes. It is a bottle of Crisco No-Stick Cooking Spray. I have determined, through research, that this small can holds within it more than 900 calories, roughly as many calories as are in your average hot-fudge sundae topped not with a cherry but with a bacon cheeseburger.

And yet, the label indicates that each serving in this can contains exactly zero calories. Absolutely none.

How can this be?

Part of the answer reveals itself on the side of the can. A "single serving" of this product is defined as a spray lasting . . . one-third of a second.

Using a stopwatch, I attempted to spray a skillet for one-third of a second, and produced a faint blot approximately the thickness of a molecule and the diameter of the stopwatch.

Now, only a shameless cynic would suggest that by unrealistically reducing the definition of a "serving," a food manufacturer might be trying to gull the weight-conscious public into believing something has fewer calories than it does. This same cynic might observe that, by the same logic, we could cure cancer by renaming it "natural causes." Or that we could elevate the pathetic mediocrity of newspaper humor columns by awarding me the Pulitzer Prize.

A quick visit to the supermarket confirmed that, food-wise, this tiny-serving thing is indeed a Phenomenon.

You know those little 6-ounce cans of tuna, the ones some people open and feed to their cats for dinner? Each can is said to contain three human servings (60 calories apiece). I placed one official serving on a plate and was able to entirely cover it _ total tarpaulin-over-the-infield effect _ with a moist towelette used for eyeglass lenses.

Right now I am looking at a can of Haddon House black olives. Fortunately, one serving is a mere 15 calories. Unfortunately, one serving is a mere olive.

A 16-ounce bottle of Lipton Iced Tea is two servings. That makes each serving about four gulps.

My initial thought, of course, was that this is the fault of the food industry. But the food industry, whose name is Gene Grabowski, denied this.

Gene is the chief spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. He said he would really like to help me out, but, unfortunately, regrettably, this matter of serving size is regulated down to the milligram by the federal government. Gene sounded as though he regretted this about as much as he regrets receiving a salary.

In fact, he's right. Food serving sizes were standardized in the mid 1990s to "reflect the amount an individual might reasonably consume each eating occasion," as determined by a national food consumption survey. In a tragic error, this survey apparently sought out feedback only from fashion models, jockeys, heroin addicts and persons undergoing a colonoscopy.

To find out who was to blame, I contacted the Department of Agriculture, which told me this was the responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration, which administers the regulations. The FDA folks told me that, yes, they administer the regulations, but that they are based on the food consumption estimates done by . . . the Department of Agriculture.

After a few more ceremonial passings of the buck, I think I got the real story. To summarize what the feds said:

1. For some reason they don't actually understand and do not wish to attempt to defend in print, it is okay for a product to say it has "no" calories in a serving if it has fewer than 5 calories. This is how the 900 calories in a can of Crisco can be reported as zero per serving even though, when you divide 900 by the 526 third-of-a-second spritzes the can claims to hold, you do not, technically, get zero.

2. Yes, a third of a second is ridiculous. In fact, a lot of these portions are a little small, but they are based on the survey results. What happened? Some people might have underreported their consumption, due to embarrassment at having behinds the size of bean-bag chairs. But don't quote federal officials directly on that last part.

So that's the story. It's a lot to chew on, and about as satisfying as a single portion of Vlasic pickles, which is defined, so help me, as "three quarters of a spear."

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