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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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I not a very serious calorie counter. I try to eat things that I know are good for my body and limit (not eliminate) those things that I know are so good. I still losing weight...so not such a big deal. Report
I'm definitely not surprised that restaurants would have such a huge margin of error -- each meal is made by a person, not a machine, so there will be discrepancies. And heck, what chef doesn't think adding a little more olive oil or a little more cheese is a good idea?

That said, it still pays to research ahead of time and check out the nutrition information of a restaurant if you can. I'd rather eat 18% more calories of a 500-calorie entree than of a 1,000 calorie entree! Report
Boy, that seems like a pretty high margin of error. I have tried to eat less packaged and processed foods. Report
Fortunately I don't eat packaged foods or restaurant meals for that matter. HOWEVER if I did I would be really concerned. 18% is a huge discrepancy! That's enough to absolutely undo someone's weightloss efforts and should be completely unacceptable. The suggestions made in this article don't really combat that, besides the first idea, switching to a more whole foods diet. I find that really disappointing. It would make more sense to tell people, when you are eating a meal at a restaurant or that comes prepackaged estimate the calories to be 18% more. Isn't that the logical answer? Report
This is not surprising, and it only confirms what we already know - eat more whole, close to the source foods and you'll be much better off! Great post - I appreciate your attitude. Report
I used to eat the Healthy Choice frozen meals. I never lost weight. I never felt satisfied. Now I know why! Report
So glad I don't buy frozen or shelf meals. I cook from scratch and don't go out to eat very often. Report
Who cares? Once again it comes down to using common sense. Too much drama! Report
I use the nutrition labels as guidelines. However, 20% discrepancy is unacceptable! I wish that more products listed the Potassium and Magnesium contents. I always seem to be way below what the tracker says I should be eating. Report
I vote for positive action versus negative reaction.
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

Thank you so much for the info - I had actually seen this related in a news story this week.

I'm not going to get hostile because somebody isn't doing my "work" for me by telling me exactly how many calories or fiber, fat, etc. is in the package. I just know that I am responsible for what I put in my mouth. And I try not to be so anal that a few calories one way or the other defeats my progress.

Ugg.. so discouraging! Report
It is disturbing from a quality control perspective, but after I thought about it a bit more I'm not going to let it stress me out. I'm still losing weight tracking the way I do, and really it can't be any more "inaccurate" than my heart rate monitor is for calories burned. Report
Shouldn't there be a disclamer saying "figures are aproximate only and vary within (give number) percent"? Report
I hate to hear this! I know it's true, but I still hate to hear it. I like facts; I like things to be accurate. Darn!! Report
I'm not surprised, either. When you cook at home it's easier to be more precise because you can more accurately measure or weigh what you are eating. Obviously, when you're eating out the cook does not weigh everything... or even measure everything... they eye up a lot of the ingredients and sometimes add a bit a more if it doesn't look right. Even when they are making something and put in a pat of butter, the amount they put in varies because most of the time they eyeball it.

I'd be concerned if packaged foods (not just frozen meals) were off by 20% or more, because overall that might hurt the progress of people who depend on counting calories. But if people are incredibly concerned with 8% then they need to stop micromanaging their calories so much or add some more variety into their diet if they are eating that everyday. Report
Yeah Tufts! Go Jumbos! :-)

OK, now that I've gotten that bit of cheer leading out of the way (DF works for Tufts), I have to say the results of this study do not surprise me. I think the important thing to take away from this is: eat as much food prepared from scratch as possible as the will provide the most accurate calorie tracking. AND, as the article states, don't sweat the small stuff! Report
I never thought them to be perfect. But I do find success with tracking just as they are. I try to use "best practice" with everything, whether it be calorie tracking, exercise, sleep, etc. Being aware and making good decisions. Report
Drat! I feel like such a sucker now, because I trusted the data implicitly! I come from a science background and used to deal regularly with quality control and allowable standard deviation, and 20% off is not anytime or anywhere acceptable.

OK, Fool me once, shame on you! Fool me twice, shame on me! Report
I always thought nutrition labels had to be exact. :( I'm totally bummed now because I try to micromanage every bit of what I consume! Report
It is flat impossible that the calorie estimate would ever be perfect!!! What's an even more interesting point here is that in normal scientific estimates or averages of this type, individual items will read *both* high *and* low, balanced equally along some distribution curve, so that there is a plus/minus difference. In other words, there would be an average calorie label on a given container, but what was in the container would vary high and low, usually within some predetermined acceptable range. In this case the result is consistently high on calorie end, which means there is a bias in the system, and that's something we *can* reasonably complain about.

But honestly, it should not matter. Most of weight loss is based on estimates, from our basic metabolic rate to the food calorie content to how big that portion really is, to how much activity fills a particular day, to how accustomed the body is to a specific activity. Even things like how well was that apple nurtured when it was on the tree! The possibilities for measurement error are endless. My beginning premise when I started SP is still the same today. Use the best measurements for inputs (like food/exercise) that I can get efficiently, monitor how my body responds using whatever consistent measurement style is important to me, and adjust the former if the latter is not to my liking. And don't get stressed out in the meantime :) Report
so being on a 1200-1550 calorie range, i should track it at 1200 because it's really 1550. the ones mislabled that are double the calories should be reprimanded because that is way off. the buying public deserves better than this. our nation has become more obese, i thought the point is to help people lose weight, not for the food companies to sabatage their efforts. they need to correct this. Report
I always thought nutritional labels were estimates and figured the calories and especially the sodium were higher than stated. Report
I always believed that nutrition information was just the data from a well selected "random" sample. Everything calorie related is really guessing: from calories eaten to calories burned. Report
I never assumed they were that accurate so this isn't news to me. I'm sure there are variances in a cup of any natural or unprocessed food as well. Report
I'm actually surprised the calories are as accurate as they are. Report
How accurate are your calories out? I'm sure even the best HRM aren't 100% accurate either. What is the % they are allowed to be off?
It goes both ways. Report
Fresh is best. To the kitchen I shall go and prepare from scratch! Report
I have always figured the labels were a "guess-ta-met". Especially since from time to time of buying the very same food...I would notice that things had changed on the newer label. WHY? I don't know. But labels are NOT set in gold. They don't give solid truth. One has to realize that. Report
I never thought they were 100% accurate but I thought they were closer than that. Report
staying on the low end is a good idea Report
I never put thought into the fact that restaurant info was an estimate. After I read an article about Applebee's and the Weight Watchers menu, my thoughts changed. The basis for the article was that the # of WW Points did not match the portion of the meals being served across the country at the restaurants. If I'm not mistaken, someone had sued but big deal there, right?

Now I tend to stay at the lower end of my caloric range to give me some room, even if it's an error in my own part. Report
I too like the idea of using it just as a general tracker. The idea about getting foods in their "natural packaging" is great too. I have often heard it said that you should try to primarily shop a grocery store on the outside isles. That is where you will find the fruits, veggies, meats and such that will usually fit that criteria better. Report
One concern, however, is whether the posted calorie counts are for the entire meal or only the entree. It's one thing to be off by approximately 10%, another if only the entree is counted and the side dishes double the caloric value and this is not made clear to those choosing the meal.

From the Washington Post

Calorie listings often wrong

Here's a new wrinkle in the ongoing debate over calorie listings on restaurant menus and on packaged grocery-store foods: The calorie counts currently provided are apt to be wrong.

A study in the January Journal of the American Dietetic Association found calorie counts listed for 29 quick-serve and sit-down restaurant foods averaged 18 percent more than stated. And calorie counts for 10 frozen supermarket meals averaged 8 percent more than their labels claimed.

And those are just the averages. Three supermarket meals and seven restaurant foods were found to contain as much as twice the calories they listed.

Researchers aimed to evaluate foods likely to be chosen by people interested in controlling their weight. So they analyzed menu items from 10 Boston-area quick-serve and sit-down chain restaurants (From Denny's and Ruby Tuesday to Taco Bell and McDonald's) that were listed as containing 500 calories or fewer, and that were among the lowest-calorie mainstream choices on the menu. Among frozen convenience foods, they selected complete meals that someone might eat instead of going out to eat.

Besides the calorie count discrepancy, the researchers learned that some of the restaurants offered side dishes free without accounting for the substantial extra calories they provided. In fact, the study says, the average calorie count for these bonus foods was 471 -- higher than the average 443 calories in the main menu item they came with.

This might not be a big deal for those of us who only rarely eat at such restaurants or consume frozen meals. But for people who eat those foods regularly, those extra calories could add up to pounds of weight gained over the course of a year.

Before we require restaurants to provide calorie counts for the foods they serve, we'd better find a way to ensure that they provide accurate data -- or at least let consumers know that the figures are just ballpark numbers, give or take a few dozen calories. If we're to become dependent on restaurants for our nutrition savvy, the information they provide had better be dependable.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget | January 11, 2010; 7:00 AM ET. Report
I think that labels on packaged foods are probably closer to accurate than not. Once it gets more complicated like frozen meals or a restaurant meal there are so many variables that its hard to image their labels/estimates are really accurate.

I definitely agree with your suggestions to eat more fruit and veggies and not become obsessed with calorie counting. If you stay near the bottom of your recommended calorie range and exercise, you'll be just fine! Report
I haven't been counting calories for very long, but I really thought the frozen meals such as Lean Cuisine would be accurate. I wouldn't count on the nutrition info at restaurants being entirely accurate though. Obviously portion control is key, but I would still like to accurately count my calories. Report
i only count calories to a point, i am diabetic and my biggest concern is the sugar and carb content. Usually if they are in line then the calorie content is fair. Report
I was thinking about the accurately of calories and nutrient tracking this morning as I was getting ready for the day. I am weighing all my food in mostly in grams to be more accurate, particularly because I have to make my best estimate on some of the other things that I eat. I figure this way I can make the best possible choices and over time I will be making the changes that will be result in the personal changes that I want to see. It has been eye opening to "get" the portion sizes! Report
I've always thought that ESPECIALLY restaurant nutrition information was an "estimate". I'm surprised though that the packaged items like smart ones aren't 100% accurate. It's great to have this info in mind. Report
Even though I'm counting calories to keep my eating in check, there's no doubt that when I eat out, the calories aren't going to be right. I count more on my exercise to burn the calories than I do what I eat. That's been working for me! Report
The total fat listing on a label is usually misleading. If the total fat amount shown on a label is listed at 2g, and the sat fat is 0 and the transfat is 0, then there is obviously a percentage of sat or transfat hidden in the item. How do we demand that food manufacturer's take the "crap" (transfats, unhealthy fats, high fructose corn syrup, sodium, chemicals) out of our food? It sure would make eating a healthy diet easier. Report
I completely agree with this article! It is important to think about estimates and ranges rather than exact numbers. Even though it is frustrating that restaurants and packages aren't always accurate, we need to remember that everything is estimated and averaged. Thanks for reminding us of this! Report
As an absolute newbie to this tracking food thing, yes I did think the calories information was correct...But just stepping back and thinking about the issue you realize, it's impossible to be 100% accurate. Variation is everywhere, just look around you... Report
another reason that this is an inexact science.
I've always known that the labels "fudged" a little on stats, so I have never really completely trusted them. I try to always stay at the lower end of my alloted calories for the day to compensate. Report
This is why I prefer to stay on the lower side of my calorie range. I don't trust labels. They are only a guide and my calories consumed are approximate. If there is an item that seems too good to be true for the calories listed on the label I tend to stay away because of that reason. Especially if it is less recognized brand. Great information. Sparkies need to remember that listed calorie counts are a guide and can be off quite a bit. Birdie. Report
Are only calories in error? An 18% increase could be important to diabetics and heart patients. Report
I lost weight eating intuitively and have never counted a single calorie in my life. Ingredients (or rather, the lack of ingredients) is much more important than calorie counts. Report
I once called to complain about a food product and the nutritionist at Lean Cuisine said that nutrition labels are allowed to be up to 20% off and still fall within legal ranges. Report
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