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Child Health – Restaurant and Packaged Foods have more Calories than Labels Indicate

Posted Jan 12 2010 9:27pm

caloriecountsBy Colleen Hurley, RD, Certified Kid’s Nutrition Specialist

As a health conscious parent you view the latest news on the internet, avidly read food labels, and are choosy about the restaurants you take your family to.  Food labels are not just for people who want to loose weight, but are also for those simply trying to make good food choices- especially when feeding young children. What if those labels we have come to trust were incorrect?  Unfortunately, as a new study found, that may be the case.

Researchers from Tufts University discovered that some commercially prepared foods contained more calories than the nutrition fact label indicated.  The measured caloric (energy) value of 29 quick-serve and sit down restaurant foods was on average 18% higher than the label indicated.  Ten common supermarket frozen meals were also found to be 8% higher in calories.

The goal of the study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, was to find the accuracy of the stated energy value of foods commonly chosen for weight control.  Foods were chosen based on the following criterion: 1. represented typical American foods, 2. among those with the lowest stated calories on the menu, and 3. contained less than 500 calories per serving, as per the nutrition label.  The frozen meal foods chosen for the study were complete meals that would be an alternative to dining out and the restaurants were chains with locations throughout the United States.

Further complications were found with restaurant meals; 5 restaurants provided side dishes at no extra cost providing an average of 471 additional calories to the 443 calorie entrees they came with.  The discrepancies did not stop there as 3 supermarket purchased complete meals and 7 restaurant foods contained double the stated amount of calories.  Authors note that the US Food and Drug Administration allows up to 20% excess energy content yet weight must be no less than 99% of the stated amount.  This could potentially have lead to food manufacturers adding more food to the package thus increasing calorie content.

 The results of the study have caused disappointment and doubt not only to those trying to watch what they eat but also healthcare professional who encouraged clients to read food labels. What can be done in the meantime? Of course cooking at home is ideal, but it is best to become familiar with what a serving size –especially for a child- is supposed to look like so if given an oversized portion, you will know to save some for later.  As the saying goes, everything in moderation: if a frozen meal or dinner out is only occasional than the extra calories won’t be that detrimental.  If it is a frequent occurrence, this only provides more incentive to switch to a diet based on fresh, whole, minimally processed foods.

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