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January 11, 2010

More Trouble for Menu Labeling

A new study out of Tufts confirms that supermarket and restaurant calorie counts are inaccurate. From the abstract:
Measured energy values of 29 quick-serve and sit-down restaurant foods averaged 18% more than stated values, and measured energy values of 10 frozen meals purchased from supermarkets averaged 8% more than originally stated. These differences substantially exceeded laboratory measurement error but did not achieve statistical significance due to considerable variability in the degree of underreporting. Some individual restaurant items contained up to 200% of stated values and, in addition, free side dishes increased provided energy to an average of 245% of stated values for the entrees they accompanied.
It's easy to simply dismiss this as another case of corporate shenanigans, though the study authors observe that the variation from stated values is within USDA requirements for accuracy. Unfortunately, the authors also point out that the variation matters:
The extra mean measured energy in this study compared to stated information may cause substantial weight gain over time. For example, positive energy balance of only 5% per day for an individual requiring 2,000 kcal/day could lead to a 10-lb weight gain in a single year. It is also notable that free side dishes on average contained more energy than the entrees alone. It is unclear whether consumers are aware of how much energy free side dishes contain, and providing more accessible information on meal energy contents both with and without side dishes could help increase attention to the potential of these casual food items to more than double meal energy intake.
For better or for worse, if you really want to know what's in what you're eating, you need to cook it yourself from scratch. Short of that, you're putting yourself at the mercy of corporate nutritionists and government watchdogs. To date, those two have not exactly shown themselves to be good guardians of our national waistlines, have they?

Flickr photo: Ken Yourdon

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