Grams Versus Teaspoons
By Melissa Conroy
America’s nonsensical measuring system is a favorite topic of ridicule in other countries. France, Spain, Canada and other nations have their liters, milliliters, meters, grams and other standardized forms of measurement. In contrast, Americans have to grapple with ounces, gallons, miles, yards and cups, making each measurement attempt an interesting juggling act. Cooking is particularly challenging: The poor chef has to say, “OK, so I need three and half cups of flour, five tablespoons of cocoa powder, and a pint of water, but since I’m cutting the recipe in half, I need…”
Although teaspoons, pints and cups rule in the American kitchen, most prepackaged food uses the metric system on their labels. Take, for example, a serving of Lean Cuisine Glazed Chicken.
Food product weight: 8.5 ounces
Total fat: 5 grams
Protein: 22 grams
Fiber: 2 grams
Sugar: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 26 grams
Cholesterol: 45 milligrams
Sodium: 450 milligrams
Potassium: 390 milligrams
For most people, food packaging numbers are fairly arbitrary. You probably don’t have the faintest clue what 2,000 milligrams of salt or 50 grams of fiber actually looks like. Most Americans measure food by volume (a tablespoon of oil, four ounces of milk, one cup of flour), and it’s hard to visualize how much sugar 20 grams really is. As a result, it can be very difficult to make wise food choices and intelligently select foods that are good for you, and not merely labeled as “healthy,” “low-fat” or “light.”
A gram is a unit for measuring mass. One dime weighs about as much as one gram. At your last checkup, your doctor may have given you a list of gram guidelines for your daily food consumption such as 46-50 grams of protein, less than 2,000 milligrams of sodium and 30 grams of fiber. These guidelines can be helpful, but it is important to understand what all these grams and milligrams really mean.
Instead of just blindly trying to consume less than X milligrams or more than Y grams, it is helpful to convert these numbers into teaspoons, tablespoons and pounds. This gives you a more concrete grasp of what you are actually eating. The results may surprise you.
Sugar is one specific example of why a gram measurement can be so misleading or confusing. One cup of Newman’s Own Marinara has 8 grams of sugar. On paper, this does not look like a huge amount. However, pour one-half cup of Newman’s Own Marinara on your plate and you just added two teaspoons of sugar to your pasta!
Here’s how the math works: one teaspoon of sugar has 4 grams of sugar in it. There are 4 ounces in one-half a cup. Therefore, each ounce of Newman’s Own Marinara has 1 gram of sugar in it. You wouldn’t think of tipping the sugar bowl over your plate of spaghetti, but that is exactly what you are doing with this sugary pasta sauce.
Pick up a pack of Hostess Ho Ho’s and you know you are reaching for an indulgent treat at 43 grams of sugar. That converts to 10.75 teaspoons of sugar. The American Heart Association recommends no more than nine teaspoons of sugar a day for men and six teaspoons of sugar a day for women. One pack of Ho Ho’s and you just gobbled up your maximum sugar intake for the day, and then some!
Salt is another area where grams can mislead. One teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 milligrams. One cup of Campbell’s Beef and Dumplings with Hearty Vegetables contains 800 milligrams of salt, almost one-third of a teaspoon. The American Heart Associate recommends no more than 2,500 milligrams of salt per day, and one serving of that soup eats up about one-third of your daily salt allowance.
If you are trying to make better food choices, it is a good idea to pay close attention to food labels and convert grams to teaspoons and tablespoons. Converting makes it easier to clearly understand just what you are eating. If 43 grams of sugar sounds rather vague, three tablespoons of sugar is a much easier number to visualize and grasp.
Here is a good illustration. One person is told that the average American eats 58,967 grams of sugar a year. The other person is sent to a grocery store to load up a shopping cart with 130 1-pound bags of sugar. Who do you think will have a better understanding of just how much sugar the typical American consumes every year?
Converting from grams to teaspoons, tablespoons and pounds can also help encourage you to eat better. Say you are trying to consume no more than 2,500 milligrams (just over a teaspoon of salt) per day. You know that this is a good choice to protect your heart. But, to be honest, you really don’t want to cut back on the salty snacks you love. To encourage yourself, measure out a teaspoon full of salt and look at it closely. Imagine eating that entire teaspoon in one gulp. Doesn’t that sound awful? Think about that 130 pounds of sugar the average American consumes in one year. Can you imagine chowing down 130 pounds of pure sugar in one go?
Even if you push away the sugar bowl and saltshaker, most packaged food is loaded with extra salt and sugar. The average American consumes 1.5 teaspoons of salt and 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, mostly derived from packaged food. Even if you think you are eating healthy, you are probably consuming much more sugar and salt than you think. Dangers lurk even in food items you would not suspect.
Take the time to read the label and become familiar with what you are really putting in your body. And then, to make better food choices, break out your tablespoons and calculators. Visualizing what you eat, not as vague grams, but as pounds, tablespoons and teaspoons, can help you clean up your diet and eat your way to a healthier you.