I made a video about soup labels. People seem to like it.

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So these soups were on sale and I was trying to figure out how to get the most bang for my buck and I noticed something odd. So I went down a little bit of a rabbit hole to see if there were a SOUP CONSPIRACY.

Now, people look at calories on products for all sorts of reasons; some soups are marketed as Light for people who look at 70 or 80 calories and think, that’s good, I want a low number, while some people think 70 calories is not worth the effort of opening the can.

A savvy consumer will look at the fine print and see that’s per serving, and a serving is one cup, and I don’t know if anyone in the universe opens up a can of soup and carefully pours out just half of it, but assuming you eat the whole thing like a normal adult who eats canned soup by themselves because they can’t cook and have no friends and are home alone with only their microwave for company, of course you eat the whole can which has about two servings. And who doesn’t expect to do a little arithmetic in the grocery store, two times 70 is 140, which if you want a low number, is still pretty low.

It’s kind of funny though because calories per serving means total calories divided by number of servings, so multiplying it by the number of servings is really just undividing it. Or maybe it’s division that should be called unmultiplication?

Anyway maybe you want high numbers, life’s too short and budgets too tight, so they market the rich and hearty soups with 150 calories per serving! Also about 2 servings per can, and 300 calories is a number worth opening a can for.

Funny thing though, both serving sizes are one cup but on the light soup one cup is 236 grams and on the rich hearty soup one cup is 253 grams. Do rich and hearty things weigh more? On the one hand it seems intuitive that yes, rich food is heavier, mm look how rich and gloppy, can you tell this video isn’t a paid sponsorship? But on the other hand fat and oil weigh less than water, foods weigh all sorts of things. Luckily we can look at the net weight of the product and huh, it’s the same for both soups.

So does that mean light food isn’t lighter? I don’t know, maybe there’s more of it in the can. But I do suspect there’s something going on with these serving sizes, meaning we can’t really compare these advertised calorie numbers, and we can’t just double the calories per serving to get the calorie count for the can either, so, so much for arithmetic in the grocery store.

See, for light zesty santa fe style chicken, arithmetic says 236 grams times 2 = 472 grams. Which is clearly not helpful as the total grams is 524, not 427. If we want to figure out how this 524 grams happens, we have to multiply 236 grams by “about 2”. So don’t get distracted by the suggestion of 2-ness, we don’t know what this number is… unless we treat it like any other variable and do algebra to it. So let’s just unmultiply this 236g, which means we unmultiply the other side too, and we get “about 2” equals about 2.22. Which is a very 2-ey number, but definitely not to be confused with actual two. So now that we know how many servings are actually in here, we can multiply this 80 calories by about 2 and get 177.6. So if you were expecting 160 calories you’re cheating by 11%. And if you were expecting 33% fewer calories than a leading competitor that has 140 calories, I have bad news.

But what about rich and hearty chicken pot pie style? One cup is now 253 grams. Times 2 equals 506, but times “about 2” equals 524. So once we unmultiply both sides by the serving size we see that this time about 2 equals 2.07, that really is about 2. and 2.07 times 150 calories is 310.5. So if you were expecting 300 calories you’re getting just 3.5% more than you bargained for.

So about 2 can be more than 2, it could be actually about 2, but what about less than 2? Is this can of black bean soup an organic alternative with the same amount of calories per serving as the non-organic soups? Obviously it’s a smaller can but maybe those organic black beans are really just that much more dense and nutritious. Serving size is still one cup, still “about 2” servings per container.

One cup equals 256 grams, times two equals 512 grams of soup with 300 calories. But 256 times “about 2” = 405 grams. That’s a pretty big difference. This “about 2” equals 1.58. This time, about two servings of 150 calories gets you only 237 calories, that’s 79% of the 300 you might be expecting when you read this label.

So according to this soup company “about 2” can mean anything from 1.58 to 2.22 and I wondered whether that was about the legal range of what’s allowed on the can so I went and read the FDA guidelines for nutrition information and learned lots of interesting things. Now between 2 and 5 servings you have to round to the nearest .5, but somehow numbers less than 2 aren’t accounted for here. Wonder how that loophole got in there.

Other fun marketing details: Light is in a little spoon, rich and hearty is in a big spoon. Organic is definitely an entire bowl that is a meal that is organic. Also the chicken soups are inspected for wholesomeness, but steak and beef is USA inspected and passed like a champ. Good job, soup.

But servings aren’t the only numbers with exploitable rounding rules. According to the guidelines any calorie numbers over 50 get rounded to the nearest 10s place, so this 80 might represent 75, or it might really be 84.9, which * 2.22 is 188 calories. And then again, there’s margins of error for how many grams in the can and in a serving and maybe they round the number of ounces first and then convert that number to grams and round again, which means the number of grams isn’t necessarily accurate to three significant figures, and I’m sure there’s margins of error for everything, basically who knows.

Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the layers here. If all we want to do is know how many calories are in this can of soup, we’ve got four strategies. A quick look at the label gets you an answer of 80 calories. “read the fine print and do basic arithmetic,” which sounds like due diligence to me, gets you 160. “read the finer print and solve an algebraic equation,” as ya do in a grocery store, bumps that to 176, and finally, “read the Department of Health and Human Services plus Food and Drug Administration 132 page guidelines plus do an advanced analysis with fuzzy numbers that even I couldn’t do without a special computer program” gets you to “up to 188+ but nobody knows, and that’s assuming their accounting is both correct and within the guidelines”.

I mean, just imagine you’re this soup company with a 188 calorie can of soup that you want to market as low-calorie as possible. You’re not allowed to round 188 down to 180 and you certainly don’t want to have to round up to 190, but by choosing the right amount of soup and the right serving size you can make sure you get a round-downablenumber of calories, ideally a maximally round-downable number like 84.9, and label it 80. So in one way, your number is accurate within 5 calories which is the rule. But on the other hand, you’ve rounded off those 5 calories more than once. Also use a maximally downroundable number of servings and you can shave an additional 10 to 12 % of calories off and there you go.

And careful number wrangling can trick you with other things too, like this reduced sodium soup that if you read the fine print still has 20% your daily value of sodium, times two is 40, plus algebra is 43% your daily sodium in one soup and that’s the reduced sodium soup.

I don’t know how much it matters if your numbers are a little off, most people are pretty far from the recommended daily values of everything anyway, but I find the math interesting and also the politics, like, if companies go out of their way just to tweak the presentation of some numbers by 10 or 20 percent, that to me is a sign of how successful the DHHS and FDA have been. I like that I can go to a store and pretty much trust that the food I buy probably won’t make me sick and that the labels are roughly accurate, so these agencies are a positive force for both public health and consumer trust, which is like food for economies, and economies are food for federal services, at least when digested properly through an educated tax-paying voting public, and that’s the kind of non-zero-sum feedback loop I like to see, everything gets better for everyone. Unless your feedback loop grows parasites who are too small to understand why cutting off their hosts circulation will kill it.

Ooh I just found a supposedly 50 calorie per serving can of french onion, 524 grams divided by 230 grams per cup means there’s 2.28 servings per can, so busted, that should round up to about 2.5 servings per container for the more accurate informational benefit of anyone who doesn’t want to waste 2/3 of their daily sodium quota on something that barely surpasses instant ramen for food content.

Actually, I take that back. This instant ramen is significantly more food-like than this particular canned soup, and somehow less sodium even with seasoning packet because their “about 2” actually equals 2, wow, I thought ramen was just an excuse to eat textured saltwater but this is something else. Ramen pro-tip, gently drop an egg or two in the boiling noodles for the last about 2 minutes, then it’s definitely food, lookit that protein and calories, and I like to mix it all up in the bowl so that the pot doesn’t need much cleaning. Mmmm. Eggs.

This video not sponsored by top ramen or its parent nissen, also not sponsored by… eggs? Whose parent is… chicken. This video is sponsored by viewers like you through patreon!

Anyway, go check out your products and see if you can find some interesting “about 2s” in your life.