How Accurate Are Calorie Counts on Food Labels?

Nutrition facts label
The Nutrition Facts label is less accurate than you might expect. Tom Grill/Photographers Choice RF/Getty Images

Calorie counting is one of the most common ways that people lose weight. Devoted dieters spend careful moments listing meal items in their food diaries or inputting food choices into their smart phone apps. But how do they know if the numbers they are inputting are really accurate?

According to several sources, calorie count accuracy may not be all it's cracked up to be. Several studies and media reports have compared the advertised calorie counts with laboratory tested numbers to find that there is quite a bit of variation when it comes to the real number of calories in the food we eat.

Are Nutrition Label Calorie Counts Accurate?

According to the policies of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), some variation in the stated calorie count on Nutrition Facts labels is allowed. “The calories in a packaged food product can differ from what is stated on the Nutrition Facts label and you may be getting more calories than you bargained for,” says Catherine Lee, Ph.D., a food scientist at Proctor and Gamble. Dr. Lee explains that “according to the FDA, food products can contain as much as 20% more calories than what is printed on the label. For example, a snack bar labeled as having 200 calories could potentially be 240 calories, and still be within the government labeling guidelines.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all calorie counts should be ignored. A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that commercially prepared foods had some variation in stated calorie counts but overall the variations were statistically insignificant.

But then again, what matters in the lab and what matters on the scale are two different things.

For example, Lean Cuisine Shrimp and Angel Hair Pasta stated a count of 250 calories, but the researchers found that it actually contained 319 calories, a difference of 28%. On the other hand, South Beach Living Roasted Turkey had a lower calorie value than stated, 222 calories versus 212 actual measured calories.

So, does this mean that you should buy South Beach rather than Lean Cuisine? No. There were positive and negative variations in all brands tested. But over time, small variations in calorie counts can add up to pounds on the scale, so you should take the stated calorie count of any packaged food with a grain of salt.

Are Restaurant Calorie Counts Accurate?

If you eat out often, the advertised calorie count of your favorite restaurant food might be more of a concern if you are trying to lose weight. Several media stories and research studies have confirmed that what’s listed on the menu is not always the same as what lands on your plate.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that many restaurants understate the calorie count of your food. According to their research, “19% of individually tested foods contained energy contents of at least 100 calories more than the stated energy contents, an amount that could cause 5 – 7 kg of weight gain per year if consumed daily.” Unfortunately, underreporting of calories happened more often in foods that were labeled as low-calorie or diet-friendly.

Should I Stop Counting Calories?

So, if advertised calorie counts aren’t accurate, should you dump your food diary and give up? No. If calorie counting is helping you to limit the overall amount of food you eat and you are successfully losing weight, then don’t ditch your plan. But if calorie counting has not worked, this may be one of the reasons why.

If you haven’t been able to lose weight, don’t rely on the exact number of calories you consume. Instead, think about limiting your portions. Most restaurant portions are too big. And in our homes, there are quite a few foods that most of us overeat out of habit. Learn to check for the recommended serving size on your food and eat only the portion that is suggested. You’re likely to lose weight with common sense and a healthy dose of consumer savvy.

Sources:

Lorien E. Urban, Ms; Gerard E. Dallal, Phd; Lisa M. Robinson, Rd; Lynne M. Ausman, Dsc, Rd; Edward Saltzman, Md; Susan B. Roberts, Phd. "The Accuracy of Stated Energy Contents of Reduced-Energy, Commercially Prepared Foods." Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics January 2010.

Lorien E. Urban, PhD, Megan A. McCrory, PhD, Gerard E. Dallal, PhD, Sai Krupa Das, PhD, Edward Saltzman, MD, Judith L. Weber, PhD, RD, Susan B. Roberts, PhD. " Accuracy of Stated Energy Contents of Restaurant Foods." Journal of the American Medical Association July 20, 2011.

Catherine Lee, PhD. Interview. February 20, 2013.

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