When Nutrition Labels Are Less Than Accurate

By Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD

If it seems too good to be true, it just might be. As a case in point, the “Today” show reported the results of its own lab tests on nine “diet” frozen desserts.

If what seems to be 500 calories worth of foods like cereals, crackers and yogurt is actually 600 calories, that extra 100 calories per day can translate to a gain of 10 pounds a year, particularly for those who rely on tracking calories for weight loss or weight maintenance.

The tests found that three of the treats had fewer calories than stated on the nutrition facts label, but the other six had more calories than listed, with the largest discrepancy in the stats for the brand Arctic Zero. An ice cream-like pint-sized treat that has “150 calories per pint” boldly splashed across the front of its carton, Arctic Zero has accumulated a bit of a cult following among the weight-conscious.

Calorie Counts and Other Information Can Be
Unreliable and Should Be Double-Checked

The “Today” report, however, showed that the Vanilla Maple flavor had 46 percent more calories than stated. Chocolate Peanut Butter had 68 percent more calories, which translates to 252 calories per pint – about 100 calories more than claimed.

Arctic Zero later released a statement saying that, while its previous tests were accurate, it had more products tested after the “Today” reports. The new results, it said, showed calorie counts still to be within FDA guidelines, which allow products to contain up to 20 percent more calories than what’s listed on the label. The company also noted that it is currently retesting all of its products at the same lab used by “Today,” and it will post the results once they’re released.

This report got me thinking: What other seemingly guilt-free foods might not be quite as diet-friendly as they appear?

A frozen yogurt brand called Only 8, sold in yogurt shops, came to mind. It’s marketed as “America’s Healthiest Frozen Yogurt,” with only 32 calories (and seven grams of carb) per half-cup serving, which is a fraction of the 90 to 120 calories and 20 to 25 grams of carb in a half-cup serving of most other soft-serve frozen yogurts.

The red flag: Only 8’s nutrition facts state that a half-cup serving of the product weighs a mere 40 grams – far less than the 90 to 100+ gram weight of a half-cup serving of other frozen yogurts.

Since I’ve never noticed it to be markedly lighter or airier than other frozen yogurts, I was curious.

So on two separate occasions, my staff and I purchased 11 flavors of Only 8 frozen yogurt from two of the only shops in the New Orleans area that carry the brand, then measured and weighed half-cup servings of each immediately after leaving the store.

At one store, samples weights ranged from 76 to 82 grams per half-cup serving; at the other store, samples ranged from 83 to 102 grams per half-cup serving, more than twice what was listed on the nutrition facts.

Here’s why that matters: Since Only 8’s 32 calories is based on a weight of 40 grams, our informal testing indicates that a half-cup serving could have as much as 80 calories (and 17.5 grams of carb), significantly more than what’s stated on their nutrition facts label, and not much different from other types of soft-serve yogurts. Only 8 hasn’t responded to my request for comment.

Also noticeable (albeit less worrisome) are the changes in calorie counts that occur as a result of product reformulations. Sometimes these changes work in our favor, like last year when Fage’s 2 percent plain Greek yogurt suddenly went from 130 to 150 calories. This was a result of an increase in protein content (from 17 to 20 grams per carton) due to a change in the straining process, a company spokesman told me by phone. Other product reformulations can be disappointing, however, such as the recent changes to Special K Protein Plus cereal. New ingredients mean a higher calorie count, more than twice as much sugar, and less fiber per serving, compared to the previous formulation.

So with the sometimes questionable and often changing nutrition facts, it can be easy to question if the labels are really 100 percent accurate. The answer is, they’re not!

And in fact, they’re not required to be. Under FDA guidelines, products can contain up to 20 percent more calories than what’s listed on the label.

Unfortunately, that discrepancy can add up over time. If what seems to be 500 calories worth of foods like cereals, crackers and yogurt is actually 600 calories, that extra 100 calories per day can translate to a gain of 10 pounds a year, particularly for those who rely on tracking calories for weight loss or weight maintenance.

And even this 20 percent wiggle room isn’t tightly monitored by the FDA. It doesn’t have the resources to test every food and beverage on the market. For the most part, manufacturers are on the honor system.

So while it’s nearly impossible to be immune to the 20 percent calorie overage allowed on packaged foods, here are five strategies to help you avoid potentially hidden calorie landmines:

Be cautiously optimistic
If a food seems too decadently good to be true, it just might be, particularly if there’s nothing like it on the market.

Use common sense
Real-world example: If brown rice has always been 220 calories per cup, it’s highly unlikely that the microwaveable version spotted on shelves has a mere 120 calories per cup.

Don’t get too comfortable
No matter how familiar you may be with a particular product, re-check nutrition labels every now and then to be sure the ingredients and stats are the same, and that your favorite product hasn’t been reformulated.

See how much you’re really dishing out
Measure foods such as cereal, ice cream and salad dressing to see how your servings compare to the serving size on the nutrition facts label.

Keep an eye on your bathroom scale
If the only different thing you’ve incorporated into your diet is a new “low-calorie” food or drink, and suddenly your clothes are fitting snugly or the scale is inching up, it may not be as low-calorie as you think.

Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD is a sports and lifestyle Dietitian, board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly American Dietetic Association). She manages the nutrition program at Ochsner’s Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans, advising clients in weight loss, muscle building, endurance training, eating disorders and general health and wellness.

As a columnist for The Times-Picayune newspaper, Molly covers the latest trends in the nutrition and the fitness industry. She is also the nutrition and fitness expert for New Orleans’ ABC affiliate WGNO with a weekly segment on “Good Morning New Orleans, Get the Skinny with Molly.”

Serving as a spokesperson at various events of the New Orleans community, Molly is featured regularly as a nutritional expert on local and national news stories. She has appeared in numerous media outlets, including Vogue, The New York Times, Newsweek, Shape, Health, Fitness, Runner’s World, Wine Enthusiast, Cosmopolitan, WebMD and CNN.com. For more information, please visit www.nola.com.

This article was first published in The Times-Picayune newspaper and has been posted on this blog with permission of the The Times-Picayune and the author.

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

Connect with us on FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestLinked InYouTubeRSS

Print this page

Leave a Comment