When starting a new diet plan with the aim of improving health, people will often begin to pay close attention to food labels to understand what they are eating. In the United States, these labels are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Food labels contain a range of information that can be of interest depending on what your dietary aims are. Labels have info about calories and fat content, which are a concern for dieters looking to shed pounds. People on low-sodium diets will find a label’s sodium count essential, while low-carb dieters will be most concerned with carbohydrate numbers. Food labels also list protein and vitamin and mineral info that can help people determine how nutrient-rich an item is.

With food labels being so important and provided by the FDA, it would be logical to assume that the information given is accurate. Unfortunately, this has not been found to be the case after many food items have been tested independently to verify their labels.

The Accepted Margin of Error

Consumers might be shocked to know that the FDA allows a 20% margin of error as part of their food labeling compliance code. The margin of error can be in either a more-than or less-than direction. For example, if a serving of food has 100 calories listed as its calorie count, the serving could, in fact, contain calories ranging from 80 to 120 calories.

Calories Are Most Often Underestimated

Since the margin of error can go in either direction, people may think that calories would average out overall. However, the American Medical Association published a report that found that grocery store food items generally contain an average of 8% more calories than their labels listed. Additionally, the Wall Street Journal supported an analysis of restaurant calorie counts and found that menu items had 110% to 195% more calories than advertised.

How to Approach Food Labels When Meal Planning

Taking the inaccuracies discussed above into consideration, you should always keep in mind that the nutritional information on labels is only an estimate. If the average grocery item typically has 8% more calories than its food label, round the extra calories up to 10% (for easy calculation) and add that amount to the calorie count listed on the labels.

Going to restaurants is more problematic because analysis has shown that calorie counts are dramatically underestimated on menus. To offset this, eat lighter meals during the day before you go out dining and the next day as well, so your overall calorie consumption can withstand the extra calories consumed. It’s also a good idea to order healthier menu options, like salad, and request that the dressing is served on the side. This will allow you some control over the number of calories your meal contains.