Home Conscious Consumerism Can We Really Trust Nutrition Labels?

Can We Really Trust Nutrition Labels?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

With any luck, you’ve decided to participate in the BGG2WL calorie counting challenge. You’re reading your nutrition labels. You’re measuring your portions. We’re not changing our habits, we’re just trying to get a good idea of what our current habits are doing for our goals.

Look at that ingredients list... good grief.

This is awesome. But now, I have to address something a little less than awesome. The FDA.

For those of us who are calorie counting, this is of interest to us. I, really, have no words for this just yet. But trust me.. they’re coming.

For those of you who may not be able to watch the video, the transcript (provided by The Today Show website) is pasted below. Just… wowzers.

Matt Lauer: This morning on TODAY INVESTIGATES, exposing the truth behind diet food labels. Can you really believe those fat and calorie numbers? NBC’s Jeff Rossen went to find out. And I have a feeling this is bad news, Jeff. Good morning.

JEFF ROSSEN reporting:
No. And we brought them out to show you.

LAUER: All right.

ROSSEN: You know, a lot of us are on diets, including one of us on the couch right now. We’ll let you guess which one. And that’s why we buy these frozen meals. They make the hard sell right on the front. I’m sure you’ve seen it, with the low-calorie and the low-fat numbers. So we took them to a lab and did some testing of our own. This morning, we separate the fat from the fiction. IN the battle of the bulge these companies say they have the secret weapon.

ROSSEN: They brag about low fat and calories, knowing consumers eat this stuff up. How important are these numbers to you?

Unidentified Woman #1: They’re important.

Unidentified Man: And that’s all I look at. First thing, even before price.

Unidentified Woman #2: People don’t buy it because it tastes good. They buy it because the calories are there. And that’s what they’re looking for. And they’re like…

ROSSEN: So if the calories and the fat are off?

Woman #2: Yeah, then it’s what’s the point?

ROSSEN: Exactly. So we bought meals from the top diet brands: Lean Cuisine, Weight Watchers’ Smart Ones and Healthy Choice. We took the meals out of the packaging and put them into specially marked baggies, then sent them here to ESL, a top food laboratory. Scientists tested each sample for fat and calories. Would the numbers really match the labels? We found it was all over the map. Some were actually lower. Healthy Choice Roasted Beef Merlot, 17 percent less fat compared to the label. Lean Cuisine’s Grilled Chicken Primavera, 19 percent fewer calories than the label. And the rosemary Chicken, 60 percent less fat. But don’t start binging yet. Our tests showed many meals were packaged with higher numbers. Smart Ones Shrimp Marinara had ten percent more calories than the label. Healthy Choice Lobster Cheese Ravioli, 17 percent more fat than the label. And that Lean Cuisine Chicken Primavera? Twenty percent more fat. But the biggest gut busted of all? Smart Ones Sweet and Sour Chicken. It advertises 210 calories and two grams of fat. We found it really had 11 percent more calories and the whopping 350 percent more fat. While the company was “skeptical” at our results, they’ve now launched an internal audit.

Ms. SUSAN ROBERTS, PHD (Tufts University): It’s enough to make you cry. I mean, these – this is disgraceful.

ROSSEN: Susan Roberts should know. As a leading food scientist, she did similar testing in her lab and, like us, found lying labels.

Ms. ROBERTS: We hear all the time that people are not losing weight. They’re plateauing. They can’t understand why they’re eating almost nothing and not losing weight. Here’s one explanation.

ROSSEN: You may be outraged by this, but the government isn’t. In many cases, under the law it’s perfectly OK. Believe it or not, FDA regulations allow food companies to be as much as 20 percent off on their labels.

Unidentified Woman #3:
That’s unfortunate, and especially at the same time when they’re preaching to us about obesity.

ROSSEN: The government allows these companies to be 20 percent off on their label.

Unidentified Woman #3: Why?

ROSSEN: Good question. The FDA declined our request for an interview, so we went to the group representing the food companies. Isn’t this deceptive?

Mr. ROBERT BRACKETT (Grocery Manufacturers Association): No, it’s not at all deceptive. It may be something that the consumers don’t necessarily understand. And this is a great to explain them.

ROSSEN: He says these labels are merely an average. Companies come up with the numbers by testing a dozen or so meals then taking the average. Portions vary so they say no one meal can be exact. Why not be more transparent on the label and say this isn’t necessarily 230 calories, it’s an average? It’s 230-ish calories.

Well, you could but it really wouldn’t help consumers. The idea here is that if you see 230 calories, that that’s a food that you normally eat, some are going to be more and some are going to be less.

ROSSEN: So you’re saying it’s OK for one particular sample to be three times higher than it says, another sample to be three times lower, as long as it averages out?

Mr. BRACKETT: Well, it’s — a better way to say this is not it’s OK, is that it’s a fact of nature. It’s a matter of being practical.

ROSSEN: Tell that to the poor customer who ends up with our Sweet and Sour Chicken, packed with three and a half times more fat than the label claims.

Woman #2: That’s scary, actually, because I eat those a lot, like very often, and now I’m wondering maybe that’s why I am — my weight hasn’t budged.

ROSSEN: No, she still looks good. In fact, scientists say these variations could cause you to gain weight over time. We shared our results with the food companies. They told us their labels and their testing procedures follow all FDA regulations. And, Matt, the big question is if these are made on a production line, why can’t they be more exact? The food companies say we’re dealing with real food here…

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Ashley D June 22, 2010 - 10:50 AM

I was once a firm believer (before I read this) that since I was always busy I should just grab a healthy one or lean cusine to stay on track….WRONG!
This post shows why this site is so needed! Eating fresh foods from the perimeter of the store is the key and so is cooking your own food. You know what YOU put in it!
Thanks Erika…I needed this!

SN: I didn’t do well with breakfast this morning…but I’m going to track it anyway…I’ll be able to learn from my mistakes. 🙁

Rita June 23, 2010 - 12:21 AM

Its clear that the FDA is on the side of the food companies and not the consumer. If they were “by the people and for the people” then most of our food supply would not be stocked full of chemicals and the excess additives.

I love how the representative of the food company chose his explanations carefully. Did anyone catch how when the woman said “maybe that’s why my weight hasn’t budged” and the commentator went on to say “no, she still looks good”…*exasperated sigh*…I take so many issues with this piece that I don’t even know where to begin.

I’m so grateful that through clean eating I no longer subscribe to those microwaveable meals. Education is key on this journey of healthy living.

BrittanyLove June 23, 2010 - 9:10 AM

Great article….I once thought these meals were so healthy. Dang I guess NOTHING beats cooking yourself.

Tiffany December 22, 2010 - 6:02 PM

This is really messed up!!! I am grateful however that I have never been one to eat tv dinners and my husband doesn’t care for them because he grew up on pre package pre made stuff. Wowzers!! Well lesson learned. However, with that I am wondering how off the calories are in other things that we eat including ingredients for home cooked meals. Thanks so much for the post!!! Knowledge is power

hill January 4, 2011 - 9:16 PM

Wow, now this gives people a little something to think about. You are right stick to fruits, veggies and meat with marinade and spices. Can’t really go wrong there. The less processed the better. But I will put a plug in for Trader Joe’s. I almost hate microwave dinners. Well except for Marie Callendar’s pot pies and I’m not really sure that’s food….but boy is it yummy. But I digress. At least if you go to Trader Joes frozen section it is still going to have ingredients that you have heard of. I get some of it for lunch when I haven’t cooked. There might be the same issue with being a little off with the nutritional label I don’t know. They aren’t touting low calorie, but it seems to be a better quality, less preservatives and less processed ingredients. Boy, I could do a Trader Joe commercial. ;-D

Catherine August 16, 2011 - 12:26 AM

I remember slightly hearing about this.

20% off. Man…

I love your blog so much. I’m remembering things I forgot, passed aside and learning new things all together.

Tiera September 9, 2011 - 11:42 PM

Organic is the way to go…not frozen and pre-cooked. Watch out, though. You still need to monitor intake even with the organic stuff.

Lethal Astronaut March 29, 2012 - 6:51 PM

I honestly believe no-one will ever lose weight on pre-packaged food.

It’s junk. If it comes from a factory, it’s rubbish. I did the whole “diet this, pre-made that” last year and watched *everything* I ate, and just kept getting fatter.

It’s only this year, now I’ve gone right back to basics, making everything I eat from scratch – real basic food: quinoa with broccoli (steamed), fish fried with oil spray and a bit of rosemary from the garden, our own lamb with the fat cut off, plain veggies, plain fruit, water to drink, no sauces, no salt, just pepper or lemon juice or other plain spices. Stuff like that.

It has been a big change, but I’m three months in now, and used to eating like this, and I like it better now. And we’re saving money eating this way. But no packaged food – no matter what the claims. I won’t trust any company with my health. It’s too important.

Curlsz May 22, 2012 - 12:12 PM

Eat real food, problem solved. Lobbyists and ceo’s have too much pull with govt, it’s more surprising to me how trusting we are of them

Ke June 22, 2012 - 7:02 AM

I have been buying less packaged frozen organic foods. That way I wont have to depend on frozen dinner where they lie on their nutrition labels. I am not sure if you got my question but Agave nectar vs. Raw Sugar (Sucanet) or Corn syrup which one is the best to bake with. Some people say agave nectar is bad for you. I am confused about it.

problemchylde September 5, 2012 - 1:54 PM

I’m not very surprised by this story because aren’t most calories estimated? A sweeter banana versus a banana that’s not quite ripe would have variations in nutritional calculations, wouldn’t they? The prepared final products won’t necessarily be the same with each portion.

I agree with earlier comments, though — the easiest tactic is preparing your own food and having more control over what you feed yourself.

Erika Nicole Kendall September 5, 2012 - 10:11 PM

Estimates? It depends. Let’s say “sort of.” LOL

To put it plainly, a portion of the product is tested in a calorimeter which then determined how much energy (calories) said food item gives off. It’s not required, but most companies do it anyway. In some cities, restaurants with over X amount of franchises are required to go through the lab process to offer caloric values to their patrons.

Without getting unnecessarily specific, they’re not often estimates but because of all the variables involved in processed food, they start to feel like estimates. LOL

Sara February 15, 2013 - 8:33 AM

Not sure I’m surprised. Variances in food preparation easily account for the caloric difference, which in reality, is not much. An 11% increase on a 210 calorie meal is about 23 calories. Not much at all. Certainly not enough to say “yup, this is keeping you fat!”. The 350% difference in fat is concerning but really, low fat eating hasn’t done this country any favors. We’re fatter than ever.

While this was clearly done just to scare people, we SHOULD be concentrated more on preparing our own food. It’s just as easy for me to go buy the ingredients, cook it and freeze it. May cost me more but I know exactly how it’s prepared and what is in it. That said, we should remain skeptical on interviews and studies such as this that are designed to scare people.

Pam July 26, 2013 - 8:20 AM

Buy fresh and cook. Only solution.

Elle October 31, 2013 - 5:43 PM

This doesn’t surprise me. People do choose “Healthy Choices” and “Lean Cuisines” because of the calorie count. I definitely know as someone that semi starved oneself for months eating no breakfast, tuna for lunch and one frozen dinner at night.

But the other problems with these meals are the terrible ingredients. There are organic frozen meals and they aren’t as good as a cooked meal, but they’re such an improvement over Lean Cuisines. Yeah, they have more calories, but I’d rather know what in my food… And they’re always like a last alternative for me. If there’s absolutely no time, then Saffron Road it is.

colleen May 16, 2014 - 12:15 PM

I use to buy 8 of these meals a week and ate one for every lunch on the weekdays, and then 3 nights a week as well. Over the course of a year I lost nothing. Absolutely NOTHING. Then I decided to try making all of the meals myself. All my meals had veggies, either chicken , turkey , ham or beef. I used pastas & sauces too etc… and after 3 months I had lost 15 lbs. The only other things I did differently were to walk the dog one extra time each day (short walk), and I really tried hard not to eat chocolate. I think some of those frozen meals were more than 100 calories over per box. Thats 800 calories per week in my case. The exercise and not eating chocolate only accounted for about 2500 calories per week. I was losing over a pound a week (about 4,000 calories). Do the math, these guys are lying to us

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