A research article recently published by the American Dietetic Association has piqued the interest of nutrition and health professionals. The research evaluated the accuracy of reported nutrition values on frozen meals and restaurant foods. It found the analyzed restaurant foods (both fast food and sit-down), contained an average of 18 percent more calories than their stated values, while the frozen meals evaluated were an average 8 percent higher. Free (as in no additional cost with the purchase of an entree) side dishes more than doubled the stated calories for a meal when combined with the entrees they accompanied.

Simply put, this 10-20 percent error is not in our favor and could result in an unintentional, inadvertent consumption of hundreds and hundreds of calories over time. The real message here is to still be careful when eating outside the home. Portion sizes and restaurant-to-restaurant variations are bound to occur, so even when you think you know how many calories are in your salad, you probably don't. I think it's great to use these numbers, where available, as a guide in making menu selections, but I wouldn't pencil them into your daily calorie count. Leave room for error. Possibly a lot of room.

Publishing calorie information has been a hot topic the last few years as restaurants are encouraged to publicly display nutrition information for their menu items. In theory, this allows the consumer to approach weight management in two ways. First, it allows a consumer to make a more informed decision about the food they're purchasing and eating in terms of calories and macronutrients (total carbohydrates, protein, and fat) and subsequently choose lower energy options. This advantage leads to the second approach, in which the consumer is able to self-monitor their energy intake. For this reason it is imperative that the available information is correct.

It's important to note that menu reporting currently requires no verification and has no oversight by a regulatory body.

The other issue presented by this research deals with nutrition fact panels seen on food packages. These are regulated by the FDA, but perhaps less strictly than you think. According to the Code of Federal Regulations (based on information found here), compliance is judged based on the following_

LAB VALUE/ LABEL VALUE x 100= % Nutrients are divided into Class I, Class II and Third Group nutrients.

  • Class I nutrients are those added in fortified foods and include vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein and potassium. These nutrients must be present at 100% or more of the value declared on the label to be in compliance with FDA standards. So far, so good.
  • Class II nutrients are naturally occurring and include vitamins, minerals, protein, total carbohydrate, unsaturated fats, fiber, and potassium. These nutrients must be present at 80 percent or more of the value indicated on the label. In other words, the FDA allows a 20 percent margin of error on labels for Class II nutrients. True, it would impossible to know the actual value of all the naturally occurring nutrients in our food supply. However, a 20% margin of error seems a bit lenient. Again, it stands to reason that these small discrepancies wouldn't matter in an isolated incident, but they absolutely have an impact over time.
  • Third group nutrients include total fat, saturated fat, calories, sugars, cholesterol and sodium. These nutrients must be present at 120 percent or less of the label value. This is perhaps the most disheartening of them all. When I look at a label and check the amount of saturated fat present in a serving, for example, I'm not looking for a guesstimate. Or let's say a label states there are 100 calories per serving, it would not be out of compliance if there were actually 120 calories or less. Twenty calories alone won't hurt you, but twenty calories (or more) at every eating occasion of every day very well could.

Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD is a nutritionist and founder of www.Skinnyandthecity.com. She is also the creator of The F-Factor DietaC/, an innovative nutritional program she has used for more than ten years to provide hundreds of her clients with all the tools they need to achieve easy weight loss and maintenance, improved health and well-being. For more information log onto www.FFactorDiet.com.