The Og Fat Mystery; Using Abbreviations Sensibly

Browsing in a supermarket today I saw a packet of crackers I had never seen before. Checking the labeling I saw a reassuring “baked in a nut free facility” (you definitely don’t want nuts baking your crackers) but I saw a worryingly long list of ingredients. The list didn’t seem to include anything obviously dangerous, but on the front of the box there was a note that it contained trans fat. Worse, reading more carefully I saw that it contained “og trans fat”. I had no idea what “og” meant but og fat doesn’t sound like something you want inside you. But then I suddenly realized that what the anonymous cracker box copy writer intended to say was that it contained zero grams of trans fat. Aaaaaah!

If the copy writer intended to mean “contains no trans fat”, then I would respectfully suggest writing exactly that: “contains no trans fat”. Reasonable alternatives might include “trans fat free” or “contains zero trans fat”. If you wanted to put a more positive spin you could try “contains only healthy fats” or something like that.

“0g” as an abbreviation for “nothing” is a very poor alternative. I understand that abbreviations have a useful role to play in communications, but there is no point in using “0G” when the word it replaces – “no” – is exactly the same length and much clearer. In addition, because it includes a number that can be mistaken as a letter it is doubly confusing. A pedant might also question the need for a unit at all when the value is zero -- there is, after all, no difference between zero grams and zero ounces -- but it does emphasis that the quantity is zero and this is acceptable in a non-scientific context.

There are some simple rules that careful writers apply when using abbreviations. First of all, never use an abbreviation when it is not really necessary -- which I believe is the case here. Second, never use an abbreviation containing an ambiguous mixture of letters and numbers such as 5/S, 1/I or 0/O. Finally, if you have to use an abbreviation then make sure that at least once it is spelled out in full unless it is one of those things that really everyone knows – and test this on a few people first to make sure.

To be fair there is also an "og" symbol, which is much more effective because of the way the human eye-brain system works. The reason is that the brain can match symbols seen on the box with previously stored images very quickly. But this does not excuse the use of og in the copy.


Nelia Mikhailiv said…
Thank you, Andrew, for your post. I was also confused by this label. Now I know what "Og" means.
Andrew Hennigan said…
You are welcome. Judging by the number of people who Google "what is og fat" you are not alone. I still see this appearing in search statistics.
John Hanson said…
Andrew, I Googled into your blog of four years ago after being baffled on seeing "Og transfat" on a US product on sale in a gourmet grocery in Perth, Western Australia, yesterday. I agree with everything you say in criticism of this ridiculous labelling but I am going to add a further point; if the "Og" is meant to represent "zero grammes", in terms of the International System of Units (SI), there should be a space between the zero and the gramme symbol, ie 0 g. That's why copy writers should always run their copy past an engineer before going into print (LOL).
Andrew Hennigan said…
Thanks for your comment. You are right about the space though many people omit this space in writing so that the value will not be separated from the unit at the end of a line.

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