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If the Calorie Information Isn't Accurate, What Should You Do?

By , SparkPeople Blogger

Researchers at Tufts University recently looked at 29 restaurant meals from casual dining establishments such as Wendy's and Ruby Tuesday and 10 frozen supermarket meals like Lean Cuisine, Weight Watchers, and Healthy Choices. The study findings regarding the accuracy of the stated energy content have been published in this month's The Journal of the American Dietetic Association. What did they reveal?

Casual dining meals typically averaged 18% more calories than the provided nutrition information indicated and the frozen meals averaged 8% more than the calories listed on the nutrition label. Renowned nutrition professor Marion Nestle was not surprised by these findings because she feels nutrition labels where intended to be general estimates versus scientifically accurate in the information they report. I'm sure many of you are shrieking in horror at the idea that the labels are not accurate.

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 amended the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and legislated what must be included on food labels. In 1996, then Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, reported 91 percent of tests on sample food products provided accurate nutrition information. This was an improvement from tests completed in 1994 which showed only 87% accuracy. While it is encouraging to see there is consistency in the inaccuracy, what are we to do when the nutrition label or posted calorie content are suppose to be standards on which we base our diet and nutrition decision making.

We could sit around wringing our hands and feeling defeated because we can't trust information or we could choose to take positive steps to take control of our lives in ways that really matter. I vote for positive action versus negative reaction. Here are a few things that will hopefully help you do just that.

  • Select more foods that come in natural packaging and don't require a label: Foods in their natural packaging like fruits and vegetables are lower calorie, nutrient rich options that are pretty consistent related to the calories they provide. When you use these either as a snack or in a main dish, you are taking positive action to control your nutrient intake.
  • Focus on eating to live and not living to eat: It can be very easy to focus so much on the number of calories you are consuming that it becomes an unhealthy obsession. When we are able to fill our lives with goals and use food as the fuel that helps us reach those goals, food becomes a means to an end for us instead of an activity in our day and something we try to control. If not knowing exactly how many calories are in a food you are eating freaks you out, perhaps you need to take a positive step back. Look at the goals you have set or need to set and decide how the foods you select will help you accomplish them. As one member stated so eloquently on a message board post last week, it is important to know if you are consuming 1,500 calories or 1,200 calories, but it isn't imperative that you know if you are consuming 1,250 calories.
  • Use a journal or food tracker as an educational tool instead of a calculator: One of the things a registered dietitian is trained to do is to collect a 24-hour diet recall. Partly this recall is to evaluate the person's meal selection for nutrient composition but more importantly, it is to gauge where nutrition intervention and education need to begin. Keeping a written journal or using an electronic tool to monitor what you eat can do the same thing for you if you look beyond the basic calorie calculation as the bottom line. Reviewing your "diet recall" for the day or the week will allow you to evaluate if you are making positive changes in the foods and portion sizes you are selecting. You can use it to see if you eat more at one time of day than another and if your macronutrients are balanced. This tool can provide a great deal of useful information if you use it for evaluation instead of only calculation.
More than likely the food you eat, even in the correct portion size, will not provide EXACTLY the number of calories and nutrients listed on the food label. More than likely, the number of calories and nutrients you are aiming to consume in a day is not EXACTLY what you need. This is largely why calories and macronutrient needs are provided in ranges instead of exact numbers. Focus on the bigger picture and how the foods you select are contributing to your ability to reach goals and helping you get where you want to go. Each day and each week provides plenty of opportunities to make small changes that when added together can make positive contributions to get you where you want to be and like the saying goes – don't sweat the small stuff.

Did you think the calorie and nutrient information on nutrition labels was a general estimate or scientifically accurate.

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GEORGE815 2/10/2020
Thanks Report
CECELW 1/4/2020
we eat at home most of the time Report
AQUAGIRL08 11/16/2019
You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thank you! Report
RCLYKE 10/9/2019
Great info Report
1CRAZYDOG 6/29/2019
Those suggestions really do work! I've been using them for quite some time. Thanks for reminder. Report
thanks. Report
Eat at home! Report
Cook more at home. Report
Lucky for me, I maybe eat out once a month and almost never bother with pre-fab frozen dinners. I just hope they aren't botching the labels on things like yogurt, ice cream, and canned soup! Report
Oh I knew they were estimates and I'm not even a little surprised they are off at restaurants. One of my favourite on the go foods is a veggie wrap and depending on who is working you get more or less of something. Sometimes my boyfriend and I go out for dinner and you just know they aren't making it exactly the same every time. The fact that it's higher, also no surprise to me. I don't know how the process works, but I assume when the meal is being submitted for assessment they would make it as light as possible, and measure ingredients out.

Frozen meals do surprise me a bit, but I guess its the same idea. Too bad, cause that always something easy when you're in a hurry. Good news is I don't eat them that often. Report
I knew that the figures were off at least a little bit. Still, it's better to have an idea of how many calories you are consuming. I guess we all need to account for that mentally or round up when entering your calorie info in the food tracker. Report
I think I'm just going to eat at home from now on and keep the food preparation simple and as natural as I can. YIKES! Report
Thanks for the info, most helpful! Report
I'm not surprised, as many of you. However it's still a good guideline. If you ate 2 servings, now just eat 1. Your nutrtion facts haven't changed because you based it off of this information before, you're just cutting it in half. When you saw you were eating 200 calories (but in fact it was 250); you are now eating 100 calories (but it's 125). It's all relative.

That's like the scale. If we all had weigh-ins on the moon we would appear to weigh much less. The same with weighing in stones, pounds, kilograms, etc. In the end it's all the same. Report
Good grief, what was I thinking? I ought to have second-guessed this factor. Oh well, another important piece of information to file away. Report
I guess I feel kinda stupid for thinking that the labels were accurate. Although, a couple days ago my husband was watching me read labels and told me that he read on the internet that labels were not all that accurate. I guess I should have caught on when all the labels have even numbers. I guess that is why we have a range in which to track our calories. Report
Good info, thanks for posting!
Linda Report
I figured that restaurant info would vary a good deal from what is posted, but I'm pretty surprised about frozen meals. I figured they would be so standardized the margin of error would be very small. I guess 8% isn't too bad.

I really like the suggestion of using the nutrition tracker as an educational tool. I think it's been most helpful for me in making me aware of how many empty calories are in certain foods so I know to moderate them. Report
Nothing is on point and exact. Just use all the knowledge you have on nutrition and portion size. Report
I don't expect any labels to be exact... just guidelines! The same goes for tracking fitness calories in your Spark fitness tracker. For example... if you select "elliptical" for your cardio workout, it doesn't take into consideration the difficulty level of the effort, just the minutes you used the machine! It's meant to guide you, not rule your life! Report
I've never ever thought the caloric information was accurate but a "rule of thumb" for what was in the foods. (I'm not really sure how to measure a calorie anyway....). But I think scales aren't accurate either, just a general guideline. The best thing to do is to use it as a measure and stay within the lower limits of your daily calories, I think. Report
I like the idea of using natural packaging as much as possible. Like fruits and vegetables. If we stay in our range, we'll be fine. Report
I am not suprised. I just try to stay in my range and cook at home more often. Report
I'm not at all surprised! This is why I try to eat more natural foods and we have started growing our own vegetables. How SAD!! Report
just don't overeat then if cal. info isn't accurate all the time Report
I am not surprised. I think what counts is the effort at trying to stay within a range and using past food logs to figure out what may have caused a problem if one arises. When I stall, I always go back to a week when I did better and the culprit is usually obvious. Report
We need to be educated as well as educate ourselves and don't be fooled by the lack of/ accuracy there of and be mindful of what's really going into our bodies. There are so many items out there that we absord and have no control over. Complaining helps but how can we, as consumers prove this?! Go figure! Report
I always figured that calorie counts on packaged foods were darn close to accurate. And I always knew that counts for restaurants were estimates. But I was surprised to see how far off they could be.

Oh well, I guess you cant believe everything you read. Report
This does not surprize me in the least ! I've seen it myself. As an avid label reader, I've found many labels to under estimate the calorie content of many items. that's why I try to be careful how much I eat of something. It does make me think twice about buying certain items. So, I do think of it as a guideline more than as a given. so, yes, estimate over accurate.

Not really that much of a surprise given that companies have 20% slack on the nutritional information, but 0% slack on underdelivering by weight. Things are going to skew high under those constraints. Report
I have always considered calorie counts to be an estimate - one cup of corn may have two more kernels than another or one strawberry is bigger than another. But I never realized that the difference could be so great. I always use calories as a guide and realize that I never have the exact number either taken in or put out in exercise or daily activity Report
Wow, I wasn't aware they were that far off. I have tried to cut back on prepackaged food though because of the sodium content. But this is good to know for when I do have one or eat out. Report
I assumed it was close, but not exact. There are varaiaitions in portions, especially at restaurants.. Report
Okay, so first the calorie burned counter on the gym equipment is not accurate and now the food calories now listed are inaccurrate as well. Very frustrating when trying to loose weight. But at least it explains why progress is moving more slowly than I thought. Report
I figured those counts were a little bit of an estimate, but I didn't think that they'd be off by that big of a percentage. Report
I'm not too concerned, but any time I have to enter one of these things I'll add 10% to the calories as labeled. It should balance out better! BUT, since I'm more concerned about salt content, I only buy the acceptable ones when they're on sale.
That is another way to limit my use of them. Report
Once I weaned my body off of all the chemical laden food-like things purchased frozen, prepared for me or in chain restaurants, I discovered my newly healthy body couldn't tolerate them and my awakened tastebuds rejected their flavour. Thus, their calorie counts mean nothing to me. I estimate amounts when cooking from scratch though so I know I'm going to be off on my counts too. I always try to guess high and keep my daily intake on the lower side of the scale. Voila, all good! Report
I always figured they were a good estimate, but not necessarily exact --you don't always get the exact same number of carrots vs. peas in a can of vegetable soup, for example. What throws me sometimes is when some items that pretty much everyone most people would contain a single serving, like the microwavable soup bowls, claim to have approx 2 servings and I don't catch that. So I don't realize the nutrition/calorie info is only for half a container. Report
Previously, I did believe that prepackaged nutrition info was accurate...shame on me I guess. Of course, I viewed restaurant nutrition info as an estimate since each time they make the dish fresh, the actual measurements and such can vary somewhat.

Good to know the reality. Report
I have found that I really don't enjoy the taste of the pre-packaged food and really can't afford to go out to eat.I started cooking when I was real young and it is one of my passions.Now I am really getting into how I can change a recipe and get those calories down and the nutrients up.Something to keep me occupied. Report
As a person who works in the packaging industry, I have always figured some calorie information was inaccurate, though I know how hard many of the large corporations like Quaker Oats, and Kraft Foods do work to keep content exact and equal in each package.
I also know that what I cook for myself each day is estimated by Spark People when I input the foods into the tracker...One cup of broccoli one day is not going to be exactly the same as one cup of broccoli the next.
We are all an experiment of one, and we all have to figure out what works for ourselves. This information is not going to keep me from eating the occasional Frozen Lean Cuisine, Kashi meal, or any of the other lower calorie frozen meals. Report
ALWAYS read lables before I buy.. BUT veggies I get fresh no matter what!!;-) Report
Very interesting. What's also striking is that the calorie counts of frozen dinners are always changing, as are the nutrient counts/percentages. I'm always having to re-enter data in my tracker, as a result. Report
That is the reason I cook my own food. The labels are made before or after putting the food in the containers and this can lead to error. It is better to cook for yourself. Report
It is concerning from a health and weight loss standpoint, but I can't also help but wonder how this is benefiting companies from a monetary perspective. Since so many of us are health-conscious label shoppers, we are more inclined to purchase products whose nutrition labels look the best. For those companies who are being more honest/accurate in their labeling, the values may falsely appear worse than another company's product who nutritional label takes advantage of the full 20% leeway. It seems like truth in advertising should play a role here also. Report
I buy McGavin's Whole Wheat bread and they have 2 different lables, one says 2 slices = 150 and the other says 170. I tend to stay at the low end of my calorie range and fill up on fruits and veggies. Report
18% is actually significant. I'm particularly concerned about restaurants- although it is difficult for them to keep things accurate as each individual restaurant is different. But if we are always 18% too high, that means my 1500 calories a day is now almost 1800. No wonder I'm not losing any weight! Report
Who can you trust anyway? Do most foods au naturel and things will work out. Report
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