If you’re counting calories, you probably can’t imagine living without nutrition labels. Maybe you’re even living in a city where you’re getting that information on the menu. But calorie counts only work if the number listed is accurate. And as a recent study showed, they’re quite often wrong — sometimes by a lot.
In her own quest to slim down, professor Susan Roberts of Tufts University thought something might be fishy when it came to the amount of calories advertised on food labels in supermarkets and in restaurants. So she started doing some research, sending food from 29 restaurants and 10 frozen meals sold in supermarkets to the lab for testing. She chose meals that she figured dieters would most likely select: Either the lowest-calorie item on the menu, or meals that had 500 calories or less.
It turns out, she was right. Frozen meals had an average of 8 percent more calories than advertised, and restaurant meals had up to 18 percent more calories. Ouch! For a 500-calorie restaurant meal (which, let’s be honest, is pretty hard to find) that could be nearly an extra 100 calories more than you thought you were eating.
Outraged? You’re not the only one. “If people use published calorie contents for weight control, discrepancies of this magnitude could result in weight gain of many pounds a year,” Roberts said in the study. She’s not kidding. Consuming 5 percent more than your recommended daily calorie intake can lead to weight gain of 10 pounds in a year. The sample in the study was relatively small, however, and Roberts cautioned in a statement that more research would have to be done to see if this holds true nationwide.
This seems deceptive, but is it illegal? In case you’re wondering what the government is going to do to put an end to this, the answer, unfortunately, is absolutely nothing. While the FDA is strict about the advertised weight of food in the grocery store, calorie counts are allowed to be inaccurate by up to 20 percent. And as of now, restaurant calorie counts are not regulated by the FDA.
So what can you do if you can’t trust labels? Truth is, when it comes to watching what you eat, it’s up to you to make the responsible choices, and that means not putting faith into anything you haven’t made yourself. Cook fresh food whenever possible — that way, you can make sure you know what’s going into your meals. And when it comes to restaurant meals, instantly halve the calorie by sharing your dish or taking half home for tomorrow’s lunch.
And next time you head to a restaurant, don’t always trust the salads — especially these calorie shockers!