A study published this month in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (JADA) stated that measured calorie values of 29 quick serve & sit-down restaurant foods averaged 18% more than stated values. In addition, calorie values of 10 frozen meals purchased from grocery stores averaged 8% more than stated (1). Now these were reduced energy meals, which would lead you to believe that they are purchased by those watching calorie intake to achieve weight loss.
The study also concluded that there was no significant difference between stated & what was measured...hmm, so what's the big deal you ask? Well imagine that you're trying to lose weight, if you eat an extra 5% over your required 2000 calories on a daily basis you may end up with a 10-lb weight gain in 1 year. That's pretty significant to me!
This explanation may help clear some of the muddied water. The FDA established labeling laws, which are required for packaged foods. When a company analyzes their product, most of the numbers on the nutrition facts panel (except for a few) are rounded to the nearest whole number or to the nearest 5 (ex: 123 would round down to 120 & 126 would round up to 130). This rounding can easily generate the 8% increase in stated calorie level from the grocery store meals that were analyzed.
What about the restaurant meals? Since that data was provided from the restaurant it is highly variable. If the recipe changed or it's been prepared by a different method or you choose a side dish, the calories are almost guaranteed to increase. Just one more reason to cook at home most of the time!
With this new information, can food labels be trusted? In my opinion, yes. Remember the rounding, decrease your portion size, & buy whole foods. Purchasing whole foods also decreases your intake of sodium & preservatives used to extend shelf-life of pre-packaged meals; plus it tastes better! When you go out to eat, request your protein be grilled, baked, or broiled & watch the extras.
If you want to know the calories in your whole food choices you can go to the USDA food database & search for your food. There will always be a discrepancy depending on how food is prepared, cut, weighed, etc. But if you know your resting metabolic rate & stay within your required calories you should meet your goals. Several online programs are available for you to input your intake & exercise to keep you on track. Stay focused with your New Year's Resolutions & you'll reap the benefits before you know it!
1. Urban L., et al. The accuracy of stated energy contents of reduced-energy, commercially prepared foods. JADA. 2010;110:116-123.