Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How accurate are food labels?

We take for granted that a label printed with calorie and other nutrition information is accurate, but is that true?

A short 6-minute documentary and editorial published last year in the New York Times shows how wrong labels can be. Casey Neistat took normal foods and ran them through an expensive calorimeter — the gold standard to see how many calories an item contains -- to check the accuracy of the labels. In his random sample, he found the discrepancies between the labels and actual calories added up to 500+ calories in a typical day’s eating — the equivalent of a missing Big Mac or a couple of snickers bars.  This, on “normal” foods like a sandwich from Subway, a yogurt muffin at a convenience store, a Chipotle burrito, a vegan deli sandwich.

In NYC, and soon everywhere in the US, calorie labels are mandatory, but how will that help if the labels are wrong?

Incidentally, I think this applies not just to calories but to virtually anything relating to nutrition: vitamins, carbohydrates, fat, protein. The active nutritional content of something like broccoli, for example, degrades quickly after it’s been picked. The way it was prepared, the other foods consumed at the same time, the microbes in its surface — there are so many variables that often matter just as much as whatever is on the label. I wonder what the point is.

The solution, of course, is better sensors: handheld, pocket devices that can test the food right before you eat it. We’re still a few years from that becoming ubiquitous and cheap enough for everyday use, but there are early prototypes: the $200 SCiO, for example, the $200 TellSpec, or the 6SensorLabs Canary gluten detector (though it’s difficult to tell yet how accurate these are).  Microsoft, working with the EE Department at the University of Washington has a simple, cheap sensor that can detect the type of beverage you're drinking. Alexander Scheeline, a chemist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, teaches how to make a cheap, cellphone-based spectrometer (see Wired) that may someday be able to tell if your food has mercury in it, for example.

Until those cheap sensors are widely available, though, I’m afraid it’s hard to rely on labels alone.