Posted: 3:55 p.m. Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Tests show calories listed on food labels are often inaccurate

Special report nutritious label accuracy
Special report nutritious label accuracy

OAKLAND, Calif. —

When it comes to the food you buy, some recent testing done for a KTVU investigative report determined that calorie labels on products aren't always accurate.

The next time you roll a cart around the grocery store, you should be aware of diet-deceiving numbers could be lurking in the aisle.

Consumers probably expect the information found on the required nutritional label on food packaging to correctly display caloric content. In fact, not all calorie counts are exactly correct.

The government only requires nutritional facts to fall within a range of the actual amount. The real number can be up to 20 percent more.

According to a recent lab test, a McDonald's Fish Filet Sandwich contained about 400 calories, 27 more calories than advertised. A Subway Club Sandwich is supposed to have 310 calories. In tests, it came up as 380 calories, 70 more than listed.

KTVU wanted to find out just how accurate labels are, so we hired a lab to test the nutritional make-up of some food. We shopped at four different stores and restaurants and bought a range of items from wraps and burritos to cookies and muffins. After shipping the items off to the lab for testing, it was determined that every label was off.

A banana nut muffin from a bakery is listed to have 730 calories. Our tests showed it had 637.

Several other foods actually were less calories than advertised. A turkey club wrap with lettuce, tomato and bacon is said to have 560 calories. It had only 522 calories. A chicken burrito from a taqueria was listed with 1,090 calories. It actually had 1032 calories.

A hummus wrap with vegetables is supposed to have 360 calories. It contained slightly more at 365.

And a big chocolate chip cookie had 800 calories listed on the back of the packaging. It was actually 832 calories.

Bottom line, the math can be fuzzy when trying to count calories. And for San Jose Boxing trainer Rick Alexander and his clients trying to lose weight, every calorie counts.

"If you have three different meals, and each of them have an extra 80 calories on them, that's basically a meal within itself," said Alexander.

To be clear, the sample of foods KTVU tested was small. Experts say it's rare, but when the government checks the accuracy of a label, it tests dozens of the same item. It does not test every item on the store shelves.

Nutrition adviser Susan Algert has been in this field for 30 years and said it's simply too time consuming and expensive for companies to test everything. That is why the "guesstimate" is allowed.

Algert said bigger chains such as McDonald's may have more accurate calorie counts while smaller producers simply don't have the funds to test the food.

"We don't have a lot of hard evidence of how far off the labels are" said Algert. "A lot of us feel intuitively that there's a lot of wiggle room there. So I would err on the high side and think you're getting more calories and more fat."

In the meantime, nutritionists suggested shopping for fresh produce and meat. And instead of focusing on the labels, shop the periphery of the store.

"So the more you wander into the middle of the store, where all the processed products, is where the food labels become a little perplexing," cautions Algert.

And while counting calories should be simple math, the numbers don't always add up.

More News

Featured Articles