6 August 2013 Is the Food Label Accurate? The Error in Calories Goes Deeper Than You Think!

After four years of moderating MyNetDiary's Community Forum, certain questions come up regularly. One of the more frustrating issues is when a person seems to be doing everything right in terms of calories counting but they are not losing weight. Why is that?

To lose weight, one must consume fewer calories than the total calories burned from all sources (basal metabolism, physical activity, and thermogenesis). Tracking calories intake and output helps us tweak one or both sides of the equation so that we can create enough of a calories deficit to lose weight. Despite the many sources of error that can make calories counting challenging, it works incredibly well for a lot of people. But sometimes it doesn't work as planned — and it is important to discover where the error lurks. Some of these errors can be corrected once identified whereas others are hidden and a clear cut correction is not available. For a quick cheat sheet on common, preventable sources of error in calories tracking, be sure to read my post from January 2013, “New to Calories Tracking? Tips from the Field.

This post will focus on a hidden source of error — how the Nutrition Facts information could differ from the true caloric cost of the food or drink.

Hidden Error — Calories Estimated vs. Measured

Nutrition Facts on food packages are supposed to be within 10% of the measured caloric content, but proof of the food label's accuracy is not required to be documented nor is it checked by the FDA before going to market. The FDA guidelines do not require a specific method for assessing the caloric and nutrient content of products. Just like you and me, someone at the food manufacturing company is probably using a software program to enter their recipes. To directly measure the complete potential caloric content of a food or drink, a bomb calorimeter is used. Some manufacturers have the time, money, and interest that allows them to test their products but many manufacturers do not.

Consumer Reports found that the calories from a selected sample of menu items from big chain restaurants were close compared to measured samples — see their online article from March 2013. However, a New York Times article published February 12, 2013 (written by filmmaker Casey Neistat) reports that four out of five products tested had caloric levels significantly higher than what was displayed on their nutrition label.

Hidden Error - Food Processing

Another source of error comes from what you do with the food once it is in your kitchen. How long you cook something will increase its digestibility and therefore, caloric and nutrient availability. Of course, if you cook to the point of burning to an ashen mess, then the caloric and nutrient content drops. But in general, the more you cook, grind, mash, and/or remove fibrous material, the more digestible you make the food, and so, are more likely to obtain the potential number of calories measured from the bomb calorimeter. Although the generic USDA food items in databases offer options for raw vs. types of cooking, the duration of cooking is not given as an option.

Unprocessed/less processed foods or whole foods are intact, somewhat less digestible, and typically cost more energy to digest and absorb compared to highly processed versions of the same foods. For an interesting discussion on how certain whole foods might contain fewer calories than reported, read my post on almonds published 9/4/12.

Hidden Error - Your Gut Microbes

What you eat affects the type of bacteria that can thrive in your gastrointestinal tract since they chomp on stuff that passes through you. Certain types of bacteria are necessary for a healthy gut - and they are promoted with an intake of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and legumes (dried beans and peas). Gut bacteria also play an important role in finishing the release of nutrients from food material in the lower intestinal tract. And now it appears that your gut bacteria play an important role in how many calories you can obtain from food! Be sure to read Rob Dunn's 8/27/12 post at Scientific American for an interesting discussion about calories and bacteria.

So, What Do We Do?

Be aware of the error even if you cannot correct it. To help develop a healthy microbial population in your gut, as well as to make your body work a bit harder for the calories and nutrients, start replacing highly processed foods with more whole food sources, unprocessed foods, or minimally processed foods.

If you choose to dine out, eat fast food, or processed food, assume that the calories intake could be even higher than stated so don't choose these options as frequently as cooking at home with whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Quick tip — shop mostly from the perimeter of the grocery store for whole foods.

For basic information about calories and weight control, please read “Calories & Weight Goals: How It Works at MyNetDiary.

Katherine Isacks, MPS, RD, CDE
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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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Nutrients/Food label

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