Calorie Dectective - Lying Food Labels

- POSTED ON: Feb 25, 2013

I count calories consistently.  I weigh and measure my food, and I put it into a computer food journal every day.  I've been doing that since September 20, 2004, which, as of today, makes 3081 consecutive days.

My computer records show that, each year, during the past several years, that my AVERAGE daily calories are around 1050, and yet, over that time,  my weight has crept about 10 pounds up, ... a few pounds a year.  This is despite my best efforts.  I am an older, short, sedentary woman.  According to the Mifflin formula ... which is considered by most experts to be the most accurate... my RMR (resting metabolism rate) should be around 1020 calories, adding an activity factor of 1.2 for sedentary... brings it up to around 1225. So, 1225 is the amount of calories that an average woman with my current BMI, age, and activity would need to maintain her weight. 

See my previous article: Do Calories Matter? which addresses the calorie issue in detail.

One of the things that I find most annoying is being told by fellow dieters or "experts" that I'm eating "too few" calories, and that I need to eat more.  When anyone makes that overused mythical statement about the necessity of a "1200 calorie minimum", I want to poke a sharp stick into their eye.

Bodies are different ages, sizes, sexes, with different activity levels and the word "AVERAGE" means that there are people whose caloric needs are both ABOVE and BELOW that number. Also, and this is what this article addresses:... no matter how carefully a person counts calories, it is absolutely impossible to get a truly accurate count. 

I do the best I can to be accurate, but research shows ... and I've personally discovered ... that calorie counting mistakes are almost always Under the number, not Over the number.  I love food, and I love eating.  I want to be accurate, but I also want as much of that food as I can reasonably eat, and this involves the issue of my appetite as well as the issue of my nutritional needs.

So, first, I realize that no matter how hard I try, I will sometimes make personal mistakes when I judge the amounts of my own food portions.

Next, my calorie counting is based on the information I receive from others about the food I'm eating.  All of that information is based on AVERAGES.  Even raw fruits and vegetables have slightly different calorie counts, depending on their stage of ripeness. The fat content in meats, fish, chicken etc. varies as well.  Most of the food sold in the United States contain food labels.  I input the food label information into my computer software program, and ALLEGEDLY ... when I measure the amounts of that food correctly ... I will have an accurate calorie count.  Unfortunately, this is untrue because the labels are often inaccurate. 

Regulations about the labeling of food developed to insure that the person who was buying the food received fair value for their money. The seller had to keep their "thumb off the scale", and really sell AT LEAST AS MUCH as they said they were selling.  This is still the focus of regulations.  Nowadays marketers know we want the most for our money, AND they know that many of us ALSO want the most for our calories, so calorie labeling errors will almost always be in the direction of saying that there is LESS rather than MORE.

Here is some general information that's important to know regarding the accuracy of nutritional labels:

1. Small mom-and-pop companies are more likely to have mislabeled products than big brands.

2. The FDA allows companies to be up to 20% off on the nutritional stats on packaged foods. So something that is labeled as having 150 calories could, in fact, have 180 calories. Something touting 14g fat could have closer to 17g.

3. The nutritional info provided by restaurant chains is sometimes WAY off. The stats listed on websites, on menus, and in pamphlets are based on the specific amounts of ingredients that should be going into each dish. But the nutritional values in the actual food you're being served can be different due to stuff like oversized portions and careless or uninformed cooks.

Here's a recent article with a link to an interesting video about Food Labeling. 

Calorie Detective
            By Casey Neistat - New York Times Feb 12, 2013

                                Link to:   Calorie Detective video

Diet programs revolve around a proven principle: if you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight. The calorie is the defining metric. And so, in the interest of public health, the Food and Drug Administration requires most packaged foods to list their calories, among other data, on labels. To help combat obesity in New York City, the Department of Health requires most chain restaurants to post calorie content on their menus and fines those who don’t comply. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, a national program will soon follow.

In theory, this is a valuable reform. But there’s one glaring problem. According to the F.D.A. and the city’s health department, no one verifies the accuracy of these calorie listings. The system essentially runs on an honor system. Food vendors can list whatever numbers they want, until someone (somehow) catches a problem and files a complaint. So, as an obsessive calorie counter myself, I wanted to find out: how accurate are these labels?

For this Op-Doc video, I selected five items I might consume in an average day: a muffin, a tofu sandwich, a Subway sandwich, a Starbucks Frappuccino and a Chipotle burrito. Then, two food scientists at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center painstakingly tested the caloric content of each using a device called a bomb calorimeter. It’s a precise but slow process — taking more than an hour per sample. The results were surprising.

SPOILER ALERT: Four out of the five items I tested had more calories than their labels reported, adding up to 550 calories. If I unknowingly consumed those extra calories every day, in a week I would put on an extra pound of body weight. Not good.

After you watch the video, you might wonder how to explain the discrepancies between the lab tests and the food labels. I called the companies for some answers.

• Morrisons Pastry company, which makes muffins sold at many corner bodegas in New York, said it did not want to comment on its muffins. So I have no idea how to explain those extra calories.

• An employee at the tofu sandwich company, whose sandwich had nearly double the number of calories the label stated, told me that he wasn’t sure how the company came up with the data. He said the company would look into it and, if it found results similar to mine, would change the information on its labels.

• Starbucks and Chipotle both explained that, since their products are made by hand at their shops, there are often small variations in calories. Neither Starbucks nor Chipotle measures calories in a lab, like I did. Instead, they do it on paper — adding up the calories of each ingredient. Dr. Russell Rising from the obesity research lab told me that this process can be especially inaccurate as the calorie values for each ingredient are often outdated.

• Subway said it conducts both in-house and “independent” studies to substantiate its calorie information. A spokesman emphatically stressed that the accuracy of nutritional data is important to the company.

By testing only five items, my little study is hardly conclusive — I was left with more questions than answers. So it would be unfair for me to make broad conclusions about the food industry or point fingers at specific companies. But there’s one thing I can say for certain: our current system for regulating calories is woefully inadequate. With all the attention focused on what our government can do to curb the obesity epidemic, why not start by policing nutritional data?

Casey Neistat is a New York-based filmmaker. He has made dozens of short films released exclusively on the Internet and is the writer, director, editor and star of the series “The Neistat Brothers” on HBO.

Click this Link to watch Calorie Detective video

At the bottom of this article is another video, Lying Food Labels,  in which Hungry Girl, Lisa Lillien, explains that you can’t always trust labels on food.

The FDA’s own manual on nutritional labeling explains that it is the manufacturers, not the FDA, who are responsible for assuring the validity of a product label's nutrient values -- and even then, the FDA recommends that the values be calculated using product composition (meaning - a recipe), rather than any test of the product itself.

As the video makes quite clear, you simply can’t trust food labels.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees federal labeling rules for 80 percent of foods. A report released in October 2008 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) gave the FDA a failing grade when it comes to preventing false and misleading labeling.

The FDA is Not Testing Label Compliance.  According to the report, the FDA “has not kept pace” with their enforcement efforts as the number of food products has increased dramatically in recent years. It revealed that the FDA has not done random sampling to test the accuracy of Nutrition Facts labels since the 1990s,

The Center for Science in the Public Interest says that even among labels that are suspected of being inaccurate, only very limited testing is done. And as for foreign food firms, the FDA inspected only 95 out of tens of thousands of them in 2007, and only in 11 out of 150 countries.

The GAO also reported that the FDA does not track the correction of labeling violations, which means even if a food manufacturer is known to be using inaccurate labels, no one is checking up to make sure the problem is fixed.

Adding to the problem, the FDA’s own guidelines put the onus of accurate labeling on the manufacturer, and recommend not sampling the actual finished product to test for accuracy but rather to base it on product composition (i.e. a recipe). As their Web site states:

“FDA's continuing policy since the 1970s assigns the manufacturer the responsibility for assuring the validity of a product label's stated nutrient values.

Accordingly, the source of the data used to calculate nutrition label values is the prerogative of the manufacturer, but FDA's policy recommends that the nutrient values for labeling be based on product composition, as determined by laboratory analysis of each nutrient.”

No one knows how Likely is it the Nutrition Info Listed on our Favorite Foods is Wrong. This is truly anyone’s guess, as even the FDA does not have reliable data on the number of labels they’ve reviewed for accuracy, according to GAO.

There was one report a few years back in which the FDA implied that more than 28,000 food labels were checked in a 14-month period. However, they only checked to see whether or not the Nutrition Facts panel was present, rather than whether or not it was accurate.

Last year “Good Morning America”  hired a lab to test a dozen packaged food products to see if the nutrients matched the labels. All 12 products had label inaccuracies of some sort and three were actually off by more than 20 percent on items like sodium and total fat.

But even if the label is present and accurate, it must be more than 20 percent off in order for it to violate federal law, and government food labs have a 10 percent margin of error. This means an item labeled as having 400 calories can legally have up to 480 calories, plus there is the 10 percent testing margin of error.

There are other food-label loopholes to watch out for as well, including:

• Ingredients called “incidental additives” do not have to be listed anywhere on labels. These include substances transferred to food via packaging and "ingredients of other ingredients" that are present at "insignificant levels" and have no "technical or functional effect."

• A label can state it is “free from” a substance if there is less than 0.5 grams of it per serving. So a product that claims to be zero-calorie or gluten-free or trans-fat-free can actually contain up to 0.5 grams per serving. This may seem insignificant, but if you eat more than one serving (as many people do) it will add up fast.

• Undesirable ingredients are often “hidden” on labels. A classic example of this is with the food additive MSG, which is often disguised under ingredients like glutamate or glutamic acid.

• “Natural contaminants” are also allowed and present in your food. This includes things like insect parts, insect eggs, and rodent hairs.

• Many other items are also exempt from being labeled, or may be stated in a way that makes it hard to find. This includes genetically modified ingredients, irradiated ingredients, and ingredients from cloned animals.

So  the bottom line is that we simply can’t exactly know what is in our food ... including how many calories ----- without investing in some independent laboratory analyses.  Unless we want to  make a trip to the lab on our way home from the supermarket,  the best we can do is ... and that STILL won't give us exact calorie counts... purchase mainly whole foods like fresh produce, eggs and meat, then prepare them at home.

We face Lying Food Labels  - -  even at Trader Joe's.

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Existing Comments:

On Feb 25, 2013 jethro wrote:
IMHO, this article brings up two issues: Measurement of BMR and calories. The first problem is BMR. There will always be uncertainty because the formulas give averages, and not everyone is average. Thus, the component of calories out is an unknown, unless you got to a hospital to have it measured. And even this measurement may vary from day to day. The second problems is calories. Although they are labeled, the amounts could very well be wrong. So both of the items of our calories in/out equation may be inaccurate and we may be eating the wrong amount for our objectives. My solution is to work with the quantity you control: The volume of what you eat. Gaining weight? reduce the volume. Losing weight? you are ok. Losing too much weight? increase the volume. Food volume to be adjusted to specific foods.

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