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Are Food Labels Fooling You?

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Food labeling is extremely important for consumers, especially those of us who strive to maintain a healthy lifestyle. But what if labels aren't accurate? What if labels are ambiguous and misleading? What if most people don't fully understand how to read these labels? Unfortunately, these issues are all very real, so here is some valuable information to help you in your quest to find the best food for your individual diet and lifestyle.

A few weeks ago I wrote up a piece on How To Read a Nutrition Facts Label at my blog over at Fit in a FAT World. Nutrition labeling became mandatory in Canada for all prepackaged foods in December 2007, following in the footsteps of the US who started the trend in 1994. The seemingly simple goal of these labels is to inform the consumer of what they are about to eat. The Food and Drugs Act (FDA) of Canada states the following:

The new regulations on nutrition labeling aim at preventing injury to the health of Canadians, including those with special dietary needs, by providing product-specific nutrient information to assist in making informed food choices. The objectives of these Regulations are:

- To enable consumers to make appropriate food choices in relation to reducing the risk of developing chronic diseases and permitting dietary management of chronic diseases of public health significance.

- To encourage the availability of foods with compositional characteristics that contribute to diets that reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases.

Amazing, right? I remember first seeing these labels on food down in Michigan when I was a kid and recall being super excited when they finally arrived on food packaging in Canada. I've always been a huge fan of these labels because they were what first made it easy for me to figure out what I was putting into my body- something that started early in life after kids started teasing me for being a fat kid. I'd often thought about the accuracy of these labels, but I never really looked into the details... until I saw this video:

For those of you who don't have six minutes to spare, the state of New York is forcing chain restaurants (with over 20 locations nationally) to post the calorie content of all foods on their menu. This is great in theory, but nobody is enforcing the accuracy of these calorie claims -- the FDA simply wants to see a number posted. The author of the video then goes on to compare the actual content of five foods vs. the claimed calorie content. The results?:

Banana nut muffin: Actual 735 vs. 640 Claimed

Starbucks grande frappuccino: Actual 393 vs. 370 Claimed

Chipotle barbacoa burrito: Actual 1290 vs. 1175 Claimed

Kosher, vegan, spicy tofu sandwich: Actual 548 vs. 228 Claimed (so much for a healthy choice...)

Subway 6″ turkey sandwich: Actual 350 vs. 360 Claimed

Overall, if consumed in one day, this person would have taken in an extra 549 calories than anticipated, which is legitimately quite significant.

This was just one study and is obviously inconclusive, but it made me think, so I did a bit more research. My findings? In both Canada and the US, the FDA gives a 20% leeway for the accuracy of the claims on nutrition facts labels. With this in mind, it is legal to claim that a 120-calorie snack contains only 100 calories (not a huge deal)... but also that a 600-calorie meal can be said to have only 500 calories (this is a little troublesome). Additionally, I explored the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) website and found some discouraging information:

The CFIA is responsible for the enforcement of the Food and Drugs Act as it relates to food. No new resources have been identified to support the implementation of these regulations. While it is the responsibility of the industry to comply with regulatory requirements, Health Canada and the CFIA are committed to facilitating the implementation of these regulations in a manner that will retain the confidence of health protection professionals and consumers in the validity of the nutrition and health claims, while respecting the resources that CFIA has for enforcement.

The challenges for industry in generating product-specific nutrient data for nutrition labelling are recognized. Industry is responsible for ensuring the accuracy of label values and may choose the risk management strategy best suited to the food(s) to be labelled.

This is a long-winded explanation that essentially means: Yes, there is a 20% margin of error on Nutrition Facts Labels, but no, we do not verify every label as "industry is responsible for ensuring the accuracy of label values". Damn. I dug a bit deeper and found an article in the US News which stated that a 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that a sample of 300 randomly audited Nutrition Facts in the mid-1990s complied roughly 90 percent in regards to the acceptable 20% variance to actual levels. This is a small sigh of relief, but it is an extremely small sample size and the results are from nearly 2 decades ago. The article goes on to state that a 2010 study published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs found that among 3,700 people ages 37 to 50, those who read nutrition labels (but did not exercise) were more likely to lose weight than those who did not read labels but did exercise. In other words, the awareness of a food's approximate nutritional content, regardless of inaccuracies, does appear to influence eating behaviors in a beneficial way. So, when used responsibly as a guide, even inaccurate labels can be beneficial.

However, I haven't even mentioned the topic of serving size, as there is often also a discrepancy between claimed serving size and actual serving size on Nutrition Facts Labels. Between the 20% leniency in caloric and nutrient accuracy, the fact that nobody really enforces this inaccuracy, and potential discrepancies in serving size, Nutrition Facts Labels can actually be quite deceiving.

My friends over at Precision Nutrition also wrote up their own 5-part series on food labels. I encourage everyone to check it out, but here is a quick summary of their recommendations:

1) Slow down: Take your team, read diligently.
2) Keep it real: The majority of your diet should come from whole, unprocessed foods; this makes food labels unimportant.
3) Prioritize ingredients over calories: If the ingredients suck, it doesn't really matter much what the calorie, fat and sugar grams are on the label.
4) Comparison shop: Compare products, and pick the ones with more good stuff (protein and fibre, for example) and less bad stuff (sugar and salt, for example).
5) Do it yourself: Don't trust the ingredients? Take a picture of the label, and go home and make a healthier version yourself!
6) Don't believe the front of the package: The front lies.
7) Get beyond the numbers: Calories are overrated. Stop obsessing.
8) Use common sense: Don't trust ads and slogans; turn the package over and check out the ingredients.
9) Set your deal-breakers and "minimums": If your deal-breakers are on the food label, you don't buy or eat that food. Period.

So in conclusion:

- Calorie counting does not work. If you are going solely based on Nutrition Facts Labels, your daily 2000 calorie diet could easily be closer to 2400 calories. These numbers should only be used as a guide, not as concrete information.

- The most valuable information on Nutrition Facts Labels will almost always be found in the ingredients section. As I've mentioned in the past, you should avoid ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, refined sugars, enriched flours, artificial sweeteners, etc.

- To avoid having to rely on inaccurate information, and to ensure a healthy diet, try to make sure the majority of your diet comes from unprocessed, natural food. Do your best to avoid the middle aisles at the grocery store and you'll be well on your way to better nutrition.

Nutrition Facts Labels are great guides to help people make responsible nutrition decisions, but like most other things in this world, the information should be taken with a grain of salt. As always, be curious, ask questions, do your research and you'll be ahead of the game!

For any nutrition-related questions, you know how to reach me!

- DW

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