Here’s a news bulletin, or at least it was for this health professional: Calorie counts on the foods you eat can be off…way off.
Back in 2002 a mom, with the help of Good Housekeeping, discovered that the Pirate’s Booty she was sometimes allowing her daughter to eat for breakfast (yes, that’s a whole other discussion), had three times more fat than claimed on the nutrition label, within each portion size. Instead of 2.5 grams of fat per serving as noted on the “low fat” labeled snack, a portion had 8.5 grams of fat. That translates into significantly more calories per serving, since one gram of fat has 9 calories. If you are eating even a few foods whose calorie counts are off on a regular basis, then do the math and realize that weight-creep may be more likely than you think.
In 2010, researchers analyzed calorie counts in a group of foods, and found significant discrepancies between the labeled calorie counts and the actual calorie counts they determined in the lab. In 2011, a study out of Tufts University revealed that commercially prepared foods - prepackaged as well as foods served in restaurants - had more calories than the label or menu showed. In the case of pre-packaged foods, it could be a margin of error of 8 percent (more calories). In the case of restaurant food, the calorie counts found were as much as 18 percent higher than what was listed on the menu.
The lead author of the study, Susan Roberts, was inspired to conduct the calorie analysis after watching her own weight, as she first cooked at home and then tried a diet that depended on prepared foods or restaurant meals. She was frustrated to find that, though her calorie goals in both diets were the same, she consistently lost weight on the home-cooked meals, while her weight did not budge on the store-bought version. When her lab tested prepared foods, they found many were under-reporting calories per serving, though a few actually reported higher counts (Domino’s thin crust pizza). Ms. Roberts recommends eating food mostly measured and prepared by your own hands if you want to lose weight.
How Did This Happen?
You may be wondering just how food companies access the actual calorie measurements for the foods they manufacture. Years ago, companies would place food in a sealed container surrounded by water - a device called a bomb calorimeter - and the food would be burned completely. The rise in water temperature represented the energy burned (calories).
In 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) established what nutrition information should be presented on food labels. The Atwater System established that 4 Kcal/g correlates to protein and carbohydrates, while 9 Kcal/g correlates to fats. Since carbohydrates usually contain some amount of fiber (which offsets calories), that is often subtracted from the "total carbohydrates" before calculating the calories. It all sounds very dependable, except that many companies just submit their recipes to labs, who then calculate the calorie amounts based on ingredient names and amounts. And that’s where things went terribly wrong with a company called Matt’s Munchies.
Dieters are always looking for very low calorie snacks and lately, many dieters also want relatively clean labels, meaning fewer ingredients with easy, familiar names. Matt’s Munchies are advertised as low calorie fruit-like treats. These are especially favored among dieters, because they come packaged as thin slivers of bite-size pressed fruit that you peel off of a long wax paper strip. So you tend to eat the snack a bit more slowly, making it last, and with many of the flavors offered 35-40 calories per pack, it’s a dieter’s dream.
Late last year the company claims a new competitor’s calorie counts made them "question" their own calorie counts, since his similar recipes were almost double their calorie counts. They resubmitted to a new lab for evaluation and yes, they found out that indeed, the calorie counts of most of the product line were more than double the 35 - 40 calories they had avertised (closer to 100 calories). After speaking to one of the company representatives (it’s a family business) I was told they recalled the product, offered refunds to customers, as well as re-packaged and relabeled the snacks with the new information. He explained that the original testing company swapped out a lower-calorie ingredient for the real ingredient when they did the calculations. I would be hard-pressed to believe that this error is not more common. Unless a food company is actually having the real food tested, there clearly is a real possible margin of error using the recipe evaluation format. And yes, it does cost more to actually test the food in a lab. But it is not by any means hugely more expensive.
Matt’s Munchie’s efforts to correct the situation were reasonable. However, many of the ardent followers think if you regularly buy the item, you may not even be paying attention anymore to the front-of-package information which has been changed to reflect the higher calories. You might also miss the fact that a portion is now closer to being equal to two fruit servings and not half a serving. Many who love the product consume as many as several of these snacks daily, because they were originally very low calorie. So if you were eating (or still eat) four or five of these daily, instead of consuming 200 calories, you’re consuming closer to 500 calories. That differential can easily explain weight creep over time.
I am frankly astonished and appalled that in the case of calorie counts all companies are not mandated to calculate actual calories by scientific method. Dieting is hard enough without complicating the process with erroneous or flawed information. Frankly this makes a good case for eating a diet mostly filled with whole foods that you actually recognize in nature (fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, simple whole grains and fish), and then gently inserting other simple foods such as plain Greek yogurts, dairy and non-dairy milk, skinless chicken breasts, and measured teaspoons of healthy oils. Insert occasional treats (processed foods) for pleasure. It’s also a case for demanding actual lab measurements of calories. This is a case of modern practices actually setting us back rather than forward.
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