How accurate are FDA food labels?
April 12, 2004 10:48 PM   Subscribe

Calories and Nutrients: How do they measure them? [the fat's inside]

Most* of the food/drink products in the US have these FDA labels on their packaging. They are intended to accurately inform the consumer of the quantity of various important critical food components.

How accurate are they?

Are there "creative accounting" methods to report these numbers?

In legitimate assays, what's the allowed margin of error?

Also, do they accurately indicate how much nutrients you can use from a serving? I remember reading elsewhere about how the calcium content reported in milk or some other product, I'm not sure, was essentially useless, since you couldn't extract or use the calcium in the form it was present in that product.

*I don't remembering seeing it on beers.
posted by Gyan to Food & Drink (10 answers total)
I think a lot of it is creative accounting and politics. For instance, a lot of the low-carb products on the market in the US will list "effective carbs", which is usually the carb count minus the grams from undigestible sugar substitutes. The reasoning is that it should only list the carbs you're actually getting energy from. Here in Australia, though, the rules about labelling are much more strict. I noticed recently that my local health store has started importing the Atkins products but they have to completely cover the old dietary information with a new label to bring it into compliance with Australian law. These list the total carb count whether your body can digest it or not. So I don't think there's one international formula for the reporting of such things. Makes things difficult, huh?

Sidenote: My boyfriend's a homebrewer and I mentioned the beer non-labelling issue to him once. He said that here - as in the US - beer is exempt from listing ingredients and information. If you get a real German beer, though, it *will* list all the ingredients. It's one of the fancy beer appellation rules they have there.)
posted by web-goddess at 11:04 PM on April 12, 2004

Response by poster: Beer companies probably have good reason.
posted by Gyan at 11:08 PM on April 12, 2004

One of the methods used for measuring energy content of food is just burning it and seeing how much heat this produces (which is pretty much what your body does, albeit at a slightly higher temperature). Not sure if this method is used outside of chemistry classes anymore, but the accuracy you can get is pretty high, with the right equipment.
posted by fvw at 11:58 PM on April 12, 2004

The chemical energy of food (and other things) is measured using a bomb calorimeter. This is one of those questions where once you know the correct term its easy to google. You can even set up your own bomb at home if you so desire.
posted by biffa at 2:31 AM on April 13, 2004

Google is your friend.

This site directly addresses the question of how nutrients are measured for labeling.

I found a variety of references to this article, which investigates a few particular discrepancies.

The department of Human and Health Services thinks the manufacturers get it right about 90% of the time (as of 1996).
Here's a plethora of information regarding the food labeling program from the FDA.

The term you're looking for in regards to how much of a particular nutrient your body can absorb is bioavailability. Here's an article addressing the issue of the bioavailability of calcium in milk and other foods.

Is your question: Do food companies intentionally misrepresent nutritional values in foods to increase profits? I don't doubt that food manufacturers do everything they can to market their foods more effectively, and probably do some thing they can't (legally).
I'm not aware of any standards of accuracy for Nutritional Food Labels (NFL). And that Sun Sentinel article is pretty damning. On the otherhand 90% ain't so bad.

However, I sense that isn't your ultimate question, am I right?
posted by daver at 11:17 AM on April 13, 2004

Response by poster: biffa & daver, Thanks for all the links.

daver, that is my ultimate question. If I'm going to plan my diet, in accordance with my needs, by looking at these labels, how much trust can I invest in them?
posted by Gyan at 2:37 PM on April 13, 2004

Ah, got it. Might I recommend you use the NFLs only for rough planning, and instead rely on a much more accurate indicator of weight loss? Your bathroom scale.

The Hackers Diet contains lots (and lots) of excellent information on how to conduct a weight loss campaign using very, very simple tools.

Ultimately, nothing is a better indicator than what's going on in your bod...

Best of luck!
posted by daver at 4:43 PM on April 13, 2004

Response by poster: Actually, it's the opposite. I want to bulk up. I'm not underweight. My BMI is 20. I'm aiming for 23-24.
posted by Gyan at 5:03 PM on April 13, 2004

Bulk up or slim down, my personal recommendation is that you consume as few foods as you possibly can that come in containers with labels. That stuff'll kill you.

The change in my overall health (and body composition) has been astonishing since I moved back to Korea (where I'd lived for the previous few years) from Australia a few years ago - I eat almost nothing that could be described as processed food, that comes in cans or boxes. Add some exercise three times a week, as I've done recently, and I'm looking and feeling better than I have since my teens. And that was a long time ago.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:27 PM on April 13, 2004

Sorry, my 'answer' didn't answer the question, I realize now. Never mind.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:29 AM on April 14, 2004

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