NUTRITION
June 5, 2013

Don't Believe Every Calorie Count You Read

A national project tracks what we buy and offers some bad news: the calorie counts on labels may be wrong.

As consumers we are getting better about reading the labels on the food we eat, but it now appears that some of the nutrition information on the foods we buy at the grocery is inaccurate. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the primary source of the nutritional value of foods, and their information is often outdated because of the constant and rapid changes in the food industry.

To develop a more accurate picture of what Americans eat, researchers at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill are in the process of crafting a massive map of the food Americans are buying and consuming around the country. “Our project initially got started to evaluate the efforts of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a group of 16 major food and beverage manufacturers that committed to remove 1.5 trillion calories from the US food supply by 2015,” Meghan Slining, one of the coauthors of the project, told TheDoctor.

Not only is the UNC project looking at the nutritional information on food items, they are also collecting data on who is buying these foods. The end result will likely be a first-of-its-kind data bank.

Take chocolate milk. The USDA uses only one brand of chocolate milk when gathering nutrition information on the beverage. The UNC project sampled thousands of brands and variations of 2 percent chocolate milk purchased in the United States using scanner data from grocery stores as well as other commercial data and averaged out the numbers. The bad news is that chocolate milk has about 11 more calories per cup than what the USDA reports.

The project will continue until every item in the grocery store has been examined and compared to food sales. Dr. Slining said, “We developed a system that will track the vast packaged, processed food supply.”

Not only is the UNC project looking at the nutritional information on food items, they are also collecting data on who is buying these foods. The end result will likely be a first-of-its-kind data bank of how quickly the marketplace is evolving, and it may provide the best information to date on exactly what ingredients and nutrients Americans are consuming.

“We hope to finish the first round of our project by early next year at which point we’ll have a picture of all the foods and beverages purchased by households in the United States. This food map will also provide insight into what types of stores people purchase food and what types of foods different people in the US purchase. For the first time we will have a truly comprehensive picture of the packaged, processed component of the US food supply,” stated Dr. Slining.

The researchers hope their project will generate information that helps answer a number of questions such as: Who is eating what and where are they buying their food? Do some races purchase more of certain brands of food? If so, what are the health implications? Does a person’s diet depend on where they purchase food?

The information gathered from this project has the possibility of being used to develop nutritional guidelines or to encourage food manufacturers to decrease the use of certain ingredients. It may help to create improved nutritional interventions, changes in food policies, or help with research into diet-related diseases.

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