Food Nutrition Labels are Not Accurate

March 3, 2010 at 1:14 am 3 comments

In 1990, the US Congress mandated that certain nutritional information be placed on packaged foods. There are some exceptions, especially for small manufacturers. Otherwise, every food product you buy has a label that lists the ingredients and nutritional value of those ingredients. Most other developed countries use a similar or even superior system.

This makes a lot of sense. Consumers can read packages and have a good understanding of what they’re eating so they can make healthy decisions. Unfortunately, this data is often inaccurate and intentionally misleading.

The misleading packages are easy to pick out if you’re looking, but often go unnoticed. These are usually products that you buy for a snack and consider to be a single serving, perhaps a small bag of chips or a small bottle of soda/pop. You read over the calories, fat and sugar content and while it doesn’t look great you know what you’re getting into. At least, you think you do until the person next to you that points out that is “per serving” and there are two servings per bag. Or worse, when there are 2.5 servings. What is 73 calories times 2.5?

Don’t bother doing the math, 73 calories may not even be accurate for a single serving. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in 2008 on the accuracy of food labels. They found that between 2000 and 2006, about 24% of food labels were found to be inaccurate. According to the report, they were missing data for 2007 because the person who performed the study retired that year.

Between those years, anywhere from 85 to 181 domestic and 53 to 188 imported products were tested in a given year. An average of 21% of domestic products were in violation while imported products were at 28%. Depending on the country the products were imported from, the accuracy also varies widely. Imports from Canada and Australia had fewer inaccurate labels than domestic products (14% and 10% violations), while 44% of imports from Mexico and Thailand were in violation.

If a product’s food label is not accurate, the punishment for a first violation is pretty weak: information about the food is placed in a database and the product is still allowed on the shelves. If there is a second violation within 60 days, then the product may be detained. Given the frequency of testing, it seems unlikely that a second violation would be caught within 60 days.

At this level of testing, the food manufacturers are basically left to self govern. Since the chance of getting caught is low and the punishment is negligible, there is little incentive for the manufacturer to comply.

While this could be frustrating for people who are trying to lose weight, it could be deadly to people with serious allergies or health problems such as diabetes. It can have a direct impact on our health, especially in the case of baby formula where 4 out of 10 samples lacked the proper vitamins, minerals and other nutrients required by law.

The government is still considering regulations for the front of food packaging that would help consumers make healthier choices. This would bring US labels (and maybe waistlines) in line with many other countries.

Broken Secrets

Written By: Chad Upton

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Sources: GOA report on Food Labels (PDF)

Entry filed under: Around The House, Demystified, Food and Drink. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • […] mentioned in an earlier post that nutritional labels are not accurate, but in some cases the FDA actually requires them to be inaccurate. That might sound strange, but […]

  • 2. Doug  |  April 11, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    I read the GAO report and your article misrepresents what was stated in the report. 44% of imports from Mexico and Thailand weren’t found to be in violation. Eight out of the 18 products *tested* from Thailand were in violation. Out of all the food products imported only 18 were tested. That’s a far cry from 44% of ALL imports as your article implies. For Mexico, the sample size was 200 and there were 87 violations. Every single product was not tested. These were just samples and any statistician will tell that 18 is not a big enough pool for a valid sample. Your article is full of generalizations and misrepresented facts. Please be concise and accurate when writing for the public

    • 3. Chad Upton  |  April 12, 2010 at 7:11 am

      Doug, I appreciate your comment and you’re bang on… the number of foods tested is not large enough to accurately represent all of the food that is imported, but it is all we have to go on.

      I will look over the data again since it is my intention to be as accurate as possible and I don’t believe I misrepresented the facts or implied that 44% of all imports were tested. I did state the number of samples that were taken, “anywhere from 85 to 181 domestic and 53 to 188 imported products were tested in a given year.”

      In fact, the main argument of this post is that we don’t do enough testing which can be deadly to people with allergies and there is little incentive for the manufacturers to comply.

      The point of the article was not to attack any one country, but rather to raise the awareness that labels are more inaccurate than people may be aware of.

      Thanks for reading.


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