Counting Calories is Hard When Calorie Info is Wrong

How Many Calories Poster

Click picture to see the Video from the New York Times

The first thing people look at when examining a product’s nutrition label is its calorie count. Many a purchase decisions are reinforced or changed based on that one number, usually 3 digits long. The lower the better.

For people trying to lose weight, this makes sense. Consuming too many calories will lead to weight gain. To lose just half a pound a week, you need to reduce your daily calorie intake by 250 compared to maintaining weight.

So paying attention to the calories (AND the serving size) is a good way to gauge your daily intake and see if it is in line with your plan. But what happens when you can’t rely on the calorie information?

According to FDA regulations, calorie information on packages must be accurate with a margin of error of 20%. Which means you could be off by as much as 100 calories on a 500 calorie entree. Statistically you would expect the overages to cancel out the underages (is there such a word??).

But as filmmaker Casey Neistat shows us in a 5 minute video on the New York Times website, most manufacturers err towards the plus side. Granted, he mostly looks at foods prepared in small batches, where variations are large. But think of your own kitchen. Unless you are meticulously measuring every single ingredient going into your salad, fish entree, or cereal bowl, you will be way off on your calorie total by the end of the day.

Anyone want to suggest a solution?

  • Liv Marie

    How could the calories be off by that much?! Are you saying the FDA says you can have a 20% leeway of calories within a product? That’s crazy! How will we know how much we are consuming when the calorie info is wrong? People believe what they read especially on a ” healthy” product. Great video btw.

    • Fooducate

      It’s hard to accurately measure calories. It’s also expensive, so smaller companies usually guesstimate by working off values per each ingredient used.

      • Carol H.

        Well… not actually guesstimating. They use software that has USDA or manufacturer nutrition data for each ingredient. And that data comes from lab testing of samples of said ingredients. But whether using a database or lab testing, you can never truly get the exact nutrition info for a particular food product since there are too many variables, not to mention what happens inside each human body (digestibility of a food is not the same in different individuals). Basically… if you’re full… no, make that “before you’re full”… stop eating.

    • Carol H.

      Yes, that is what the regulations allow, and it is for good reason. Food is not all perfectly the same (it is coming from nature, for the most part), and even machinery cannot make every bar, cookie, loaf of bread, etc. exactly the same as another. Also, the info you know as “calories” (technically called “kilocalories”) doesn’t come from human studies measuring how much heat or muscle activity is generated by the carbs/fat/protein you consume, but usually by “burning” the food (a food that may have lots of variability in caloric content due to different stages of ripeness, etc.) in a calorimeter and then making allowances for digestibility, etc. It’s simply never going to be an exact science.

  • Ken

    It’s for this reason that I try to avoid pre-packaged foods with nutrition labels. I try (as much as is practical) to stick to preparing my own food with raw ingredients that I can measure myself using a food scale. I trust the calorie count and nutrient content of generic raw meats, vegetables, and fruits more than I trust that pre-packaged Lean Cuisine meal.

  • Dev

    I lost 40lbs from the moment I stopped counting calories. It’s time consuming and unsustainable and the info is usually wrong. Buy foods that don’t come with a calorie counter (meat, fruit, veg) and you’ll find that counting the calories won’t matter.

    • Fooducate

      Even if you are eating superhealthy, you need to mind portion sizes.

      • Matt

        TRUE but I believe thats why the Atkins diet worked so well for a while for so many people. For someone who eats very healthy it was insane but for those who switched from packaged foods to fresh foods it became harder and harder to consume as many calories. Granted that worked until they came out with low carb processed foods and then you had people stuffing their faces with fresh meat and processed crap, the worst of both worlds.

        • Fooducate

          Interesting perspective.

  • Matt

    I use calorie counts mostly to compare between products but it is a little hard to figure that stuff out when the numbers can mean anything. I just kind of assume that they are all off and go with the one with the lowest number if all else is equal (100 is lower than 200 even if 100 is really 120 and 200 is still 200.)

  • Karen

    after doing weight watchers for years, I have gotten in the habit of weighing all my food. its interesting that there are weeks when I maintain my weight when I think my calories in are less than my calorie output. I absolutely believe this article is true.


    The tolerance of error is toomuch. Suppose aperson uses 5 products ,then the probability of having 100% more is there. Is it JUST?

    • Simba

      Or 20% more.

  • Ellen van Kleef

    It also does not help that often calorie information is extremely precise, such as 69 calories for a snack or 341 calories for a sandwich. Actually, it would fair to display a range such as between 150-180 calories.
    In the book ‘Why calories count’ of Marion Nestle, she describes that the FDA has a guidance document for menu labeling (page 215). They require rounding off to the nearest 5 or 10 calories, depending on the total.
    It would be interesting to study whether consumers perceive food as less calorie-rich when something is labelled as 198 calories compared to 200 calories. A bit similar to the research in psychological pricing.