How Accurate are Nutrition Labels? And Does It Really Matter
How Accurate Are Nutrition Labels? And Does It Really Matter?
If you've ever spent any amount of time "dieting" or paying attention to your food intake, you've no doubt flipped over a package and taken a look at the Nutrition Facts panel. Whether you're monitoring calories, macros, sodium, or checking for allergens or funky ingredients, nutrition labels serve as our quick glimpse into what we're consuming.
We rely heavily on this information to determine whether or not an item is something we should be eating, but have you ever considered how accurate these panels really are? While it would be lovely to confidently take nutrition facts at face value, the unfortunate truth is they're far from perfect. That said, do we really need 100% accuracy from our food labels in order to achieve our goals?
In 1990, Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), which amended the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to require nutrition labeling on most packaged foods. This bill set the original standards for the labeling of food items to include information like serving size, servings per container, calories, macronutrients, etc. In 2016, the FDA updated labeling requirements to include details like added sugars, as well as vitamin D and potassium content in order to address growing vitamin deficiencies and health concerns within the population.
So, food manufacturers are required to label and disclose certain nutritional information per FDA guidelines, but how do we know what's listed is accurate?
In comes the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a government agency that provides Standard Reference Materials (SRMs) to many industries in order to verify measurements and specifications within their products. When it comes to food manufacturers, the NIST provides reference materials based on precise, scientific measurements of nutritional content in various foods, which the manufacturers use to verify their labeling is accurate. According to the NIST, their measurements are "accurate to within 2%-5% for nutrient elements (such as sodium, calcium, and potassium), macronutrients, amino acids, and fatty acids."
That sounds accurate enough, right? Sure, IF manufacturers are actually utilizing the SRMs to verify their labeling, which they are not required to do! According to the NIST themselves, manufacturers are free to utilize "other standards and methods", which leaves the door open for loose interpretations of the true nutritional content of items.
In addition, notice there was no mention of total calories in the NIST's statement regarding the accuracy of their measurements? That's because the FDA allows labeling of total calories to be up to 20% inaccurate, either above or below actual caloric content.
That means a food item labeled at 100 calories may actually contain 80 calories, or possibly 120. For items with higher caloric content, this margin for error multiplies. Something labeled 400 calories could actually contain 480 calories, which multiplied over several servings could make a real difference in total caloric intake over the course of say, a week.
So does this mean all hope is lost when it comes to reaching our nutritional goals? We'll never be able to achieve 100% accuracy with our calorie counts, so why bother at all?
To begin, aspiring to 100% accuracy when tracking food intake is a fool's errand. We don't eat in laboratory environments with perfectly controlled settings, nor should we. That does not, however, render food or calorie tracking useless. Many people still greatly benefit from tracking their caloric intake at 80%-90% accuracy, especially if they're tracking for the first time and have no frame of reference or baseline to start from.
Secondly, if your goal is to clean up your diet, relying primarily on pre-packaged and processed foods that have labels is not the best practice. Ever see a nutrition facts panel on a Brussels sprout or chicken breast? If your diet is comprised primarily of whole foods, you have little to worry about when it comes to doctored or inaccurate labeling.
The bottom line: Proceed with reasonable skepticism when it comes to nutrition labels, viewing them as more of a ballpark estimate than gospel. And if the possibility of shady labeling makes you nervous, stick to foods as nature intended as often as possible.