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Low-calorie foods could contain more energy than labels state

By Caroline Scott-Thomas, 06-Jan-2010

Related topics: R&D

Reduced-calorie versions of packaged foods could contain significantly more calories than stated on nutrition labels, according to a new study from the American Dietetic Association.

The study, carried out by researchers at Tufts University in Boston, raises concerns that individuals’ efforts to moderate calorie intake in order to lose weight could be hampered by inaccurate labeling.

The researchers measured the energy values of ten single units of packaged ready meals and found the meals contained an average of eight percent more calories than appeared on nutrition labels, with the biggest differences recorded for a Bell & Evans grilled chicken breast meal, which contained 31 percent more calories than stated, and 28 percent more for Lean Cuisine shrimp and angel hair pasta. However, some convenience meals did come in lower than their stated calorie content, with a South Beach Living roasted turkey meal containing ten percent fewer calories.

Director of marketing for Bell & Evans Tom Stone told that the company typically tests its products once a year to ensure accurate nutrition labeling but that the company would look at the product again.

He added: “This is not ground up like chicken nuggets. Being an animal product, it goes back to the individual animal.”

No one from Nestlé USA, which makes Lean Cuisine, responded to a request for comment prior to publication.

The researchers wrote: “Positive energy balance of only five percent per day for an individual requiring 2,000 kcal/day could lead to a 10-lb weight gain in a single year. If widespread, this phenomenon could hamper efforts to self-monitor energy intake to control weight, and could also reduce the potential benefit of recent policy initiatives to disseminate information on food energy content at the point of purchase."

Food and Drug Administration regulations do allow food manufacturers to exceed the calorie statement by up to 20 percent, but weight must be 99 percent accurate, the researchers noted, adding that greater leniency in terms of energy rather than weight may contribute to energy values being greater than measured.

Nevertheless, they did acknowledge that prepared meals and restaurant foods “do not typically contain substantially more energy than stated” and “the majority of foods tested were not out of compliance with US Food and Drug Administration regulations because most fell within the 20 percent overage the Administration allows for packaged food”.

Restaurant meals tested were even less accurate, the researchers found. Of 29 quick-serve and sit-down restaurant meals analyzed, calorie content averaged 18 percent more than stated. There is no FDA-regulated limit for the amount by which a restaurant meal may exceed stated calorie content, the researchers wrote.

Source: Journal of the American Dietetic Association

Volume 110, Issue 1 (January 2010)

"The Accuracy of Stated Energy Contents of Reduced-Energy, Commercially Prepared Foods"

Authors: Lorien E. Urban, Gerard E. Dallal, Lisa M. Robinson, Lynne M. Ausman, Edward Saltzman, and Susan B. Roberts.