Tufts studies reveal food calorie count underreporting

An ongoing study by Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy researchers has shown that many frozen dinners and restaurant side dishes are underreporting the amount of calories in their foods by an average of 18 percent

In a concurrent study, the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine has found similar results with regards to caloric counts on pet foods.

Researchers at the Friedman School sought to determine the accuracy of calorie reporting by measuring the amount of calories contained in nationally available restaurants and packaged meals and comparing them to the nutritional facts distributed by producers.

Lorien E. Urban, a Ph.D candidate at the Friedman School and the primary author of the study, said that the researchers intentionally studied dishes that were listed as being low-calorie.

“We wanted to look at foods chosen by people who might want to lose weight,” she said. “The other thing we looked for was foods that were typical to the American diet.”

Through the study, researchers found that each of the restaurant dishes had, on average, 18 percent more calories than was reported by restaurants or manufacturers. Two of the dishes showed 200 percent more calories than was indicated. Calorie counts in frozen dinners were also underreported by about eight percent.

Urban is unsure whether the discovered discrepancies are intentional or merely negligent errors.

“I don’t think that restaurants would intentionally deceive people,” she said. “They want to provide useful information to their consumers, but without any federal policy there’s no incentive for quality control … they can be off by however much they want to be.”

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration allows for packaged foods to have a 20 percent margin of error in their reporting. There are no regulations on variability for restaurant entrees.

Some students, such as senior Lauren Gluck, are disappointed, although not altogether surprised, by the findings of the study.

“I assumed, I guess incorrectly, that packaged foods could measure calories more systematically,” she said. “You expect healthy foods to report more accurately than regular foods, but I guess they don’t.”

Urban noted, however, that the study was only a pilot study and was therefore relatively small.

“We only had one study of each food, so we can’t generalize about the restaurant or the food, but I do hope it brings awareness to consumers about the food,” she said.

The study at the Cummings School looked at a similar trend in pet food, which showed a much different type of variation in caloric inaccuracies.

After testing both wet and dry dog and cat food, researchers found that, based on the recommended serving size, pet foods provided for between 74 and 147 percent of the pet’s resting energy requirements.

The cost of calories per serving also varied across the board, with the studied products charging between $0.04 and $1.10 per kilocalorie. 

Dr. Lisa Freeman, study co-author and professor of nutrition at the Cummings School, said that she was surprised by the pet foods’ wide range of calories, feeding directions and costs.

“This variability adds to the difficulty of achieving and maintaining successful body condition in dogs and cats,” Freeman said in an e-mail to the Daily.

Pet foods with such labels as “lite,” “light,” “low calorie,” “less calorie” or “low calorie” must provide their caloric content under current federal guidelines. Foods with these designations must also adhere to a maximum kilocalorie-per-kilogram restriction.

According to Freeman, the study is aimed at cutting through the misinformation of commercial pet foods to help pet owners combat obesity in their pets.

“Obesity is a serious and growing problem in dogs and cats, with up to 50 percent of dogs and cats in the United States now being overweight or obese,” she said. “There are multiple reasons for this, but the lack of clear and readily available information about calories and appropriate feeding amounts for commercial pet foods likely plays an important role.”

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