Over the past few years, the notion of “empty calories” has crept into the vernacular, in part due to government efforts. The USDA’s ChooseMyPlate site devotes a couple pages to empty calories, defining them as calories from solid fats and/or added sugars that don’t provide any nutrients. And the New York City Department of Health went after sugar-laden, nutrition-void drinks like soda in its campaign, “Pouring on the Pounds” in 2009. The jig is up on empty beverage calories. Which category might be next?
Snacks would certainly be a safe bet. Earlier this year, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service revealed the latest results from its “What We Eat in America” survey. According to the data, men 20 and older are consuming an average of 923 empty calories per day and women 20+are taking in 624 empty calories per day. Earlier this year, Food Safety News pointed the finger at snacks, which now account for 1/3 of our daily caloric intake. To be fair, not all snacks consist of empty calories. Whole foods like fresh fruits, veggies, and nuts are – of course –more nutrient-dense than processed snacks.
We’ve yet to see a public awareness campaign tackle snacks, but we have seen a couple folks use empty calorie consciousness as a tool to sell their products. The United Dairymen of Idaho hired an ad agency to help them promote yogurt as a snack. A voiceover in the ad encourages consumers to, “Say ‘no’ to empty calorie snacks by saying ‘yes’ to delicious, nutritious yogurt.” And, more recently, snack brand Lesser Evil launched an initiative called “Empty Calorie Free” (logo seen below) in conjunction with the launch of its new products that incorporate nutrient-filled chia seeds.
Skeptics may question the intent of such efforts: Do these groups care about helping people make smart snack choices? Or are they just trying to capitalize on the simultaneous rise of snacking and awareness of empty calories? Perhaps it’s a little of both.
By day, Meg is a Consumer Strategist at Iconoculture, helping clients in the food and beverage industry understand consumer behavior. By night, she is a graduate student at Boston University pursuing a Master’s degree in Gastronomy with an emphasis in food policy.