Nutrition Labels - What Can Go Wrong

How can it be that the very same product but from different manufacturers have different nutritional content?

That's a question many of my clients ask me.

The first thing I advise them to do is to check if the nutritional label really makes sense. Here is what I mean based on the example in the image. I saw this label recently in a store and thought that it was just too funny not to be shared.

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The first and most obvious thing is that the sum of all nutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) in 100 g of product shouldn't be more than 100 g. Usually, it's even less, because many products contain in addition to that other ingredients such as water or salt.
However, in the nutritional label shown above the weight of all the three nutrients combined gives 150 g in 100 g product. This is complete nonsense!

Furthermore, if you calculate the calorie content of the product, considering that carbohydrates and proteins contain 4 kcal per 1 g of the nutrient and 1 g of fat 9 kcal, you get that this product actually contains 848 kcal and not 398 kcal, as is shown on the label.

What’s going on? The thing is that many manufacturers don't actually measure the nutritional content of their products in a food analysis lab. They just take data from databases containing the nutritional content of individual ingredients and calculate the theoretical nutritional content of their products. That's when they can make mistakes. As you can see here, very very big mistakes! As such, it is important to use common sense when reading nutritional labels.

Fiber content

Another things that can make a difference why the same products have different nutritional information, can be the fiber content. In some cases, fiber counts as a carbohydrate and included into the total carbohydrate content. In other cases, fiber is given as a separate nutrient. For example, it is different in the US and Europe and can lead to some confusion when Europeans try to follow an US meal plan and the other way round.

Including fiber into the total carbohydrate content can also lead to a confusion. First of all, fiber has fewer calories than other carbohydrates, such as sugar or starch. Fiber has about 2 kcal per 1 g and not 4 kcal. If you don’t account for it, it can falsify your calorie calculations when you put together your meal plan or just want to check if the nutritional label is correct. The additional issue I see with counting fiber as carb is that although it belongs to the structural class of carbohydrates when we eat it, it’s not a carb any more when we absorb it. I know this sound super confusing and weird, however, it has a simple explanation. The human body can’t digest carbs, but our gut bacteria do. In fact, they use fiber to cover their energy needs (energy they need to stay alive) and all the fiber that is left is transformed into short chain fatty acids that are absorbed by our bodies. For this reason, for humans fiber is actually a fat source and not a carb source.


Water content

Another factor that can make a difference in nutrition labeling is the water content of foods. Just to give an example, if legumes are cooked longer and soak more water, then the energy content (calorie content) also gets diluted. Because of this, certain legumes preparation contains more water will contain fewer calories compared to a product that contains less water in a preparation with the same weight (e.g. 100 g).

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I hope this article was useful in shedding some light in to the confusion with nutritional labelling. If you found this information helpful, please share it with your friends and spread the knowledge. I would really appreciate it! Thank you!

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