We recently posted a news item in our Breaking News section, "Food packages: Actual calories exceed labeled values," that I felt-like a controversial football call-was worthy of further review. More...


We recently posted a news item in our Breaking News section, “Food packages: Actual calories exceed labeled values,” that I felt-like a controversial football call-was worthy of further review.

The study, reported in the January 2010 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, found that the measured calorie values of 10 frozen meals purchased from supermarkets averaged 8% more calories than stated on the label. Over a year’s time for a typical 2,000-calorie daily diet, that would equate to a 10-pound weight gain, researchers noted.

On first blush, this news seems to be a “60 Minutes”-style exposé. You may think, as I did initially, that’s outrageous: “They are offering us foods labeled to appear less calorie-laden than they actually are. It’s about time they were called on this!”

However, reading further along, we find a crucial reason why that overage is not only not surprising, but is even expected more often than not. Here’s the clincher as stated in the article: “The authors note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows actual calories to exceed the label statement by up to 20%, but weight must be no less than 99% of the stated value. This may lead manufacturers to add more food to the package to insure compliance with the weight standards and thereby exceed the stated calorie content.”

In other words, food manufacturers have little recourse. It is inherent in the way foods and food weights are recorded and labeled by manufacturers to meet government regulations. They must fill to within 1% accuracy on the low side of the stated weight or be considered illegally mislabeled. This compels packagers to overfill. And that overfill can push the actual caloric value of the product above what is stated on the Nutrition Facts panel.

Packagers are caught between a rock and a hard place, so let’s cut them some slack.

Typical consumers don’t appreciate the challenges of proper filling. Foods can comprise non-homogenous blends or contain variable-size pieces, or have minor process variations that can make it virtually impossible to fill to precise weight targets. For example, multi-component trays containing two or three different foods can be highly challenging to fill with complete accuracy.

This presents a real dilemma for food packagers. Once they begin to add product to ensure they make weight and remain in compliance, they are understating the preprinted calorie value. And they lose money for that overage. Food packagers do all they can to minimize “giveaway” because every fraction of an ounce is, in effect, wasted. And, as a consequence, that amount subsequently may be waist-ed by unwary, health-conscious consumers.

It should be noted that technology advancements over the years have helped make filling more accurate. That’s through improved netweighers, checkweighers, and everything else that fills, deposits, and weighs foods. And never underestimate the importance of that equipment operated by properly trained and managed personnel and in conjunction with effective quality-assurance programs.

Perhaps in the future, along with greater precision of fills and more powerful feedback control loops on filling lines, advances will permit real-time calorie values to be printed online as each package is weighed.

Until that time, consumers should realize that they may get more bang for the buck and more calories as part of the food package deal set by our government. It could be considered a sort of bonus stimulus package for the stomach that also has consequences.

As always, we welcome your thoughts.