- Calorie information on food labels is back in the spotlight after the makers of KIND bars announced they’re lowering the calorie count on their wrappers.
- Their decision was based on recent research that scrutinized how calories are calculated on food items.
- Experts say calorie labels are only supposed to be a guide, not an exact measurement.
- They add that people metabolize food differently and that can change the number of calories a person gets from a particular food.
If counting calories is your side hustle, news that almonds may have fewer calories than previously thought may have felt like a spot bonus.
You weren’t the only one who took notice.
The makers of KIND nut-packed bars announced last month that they’re changing calorie counts on their wrappers based on recent research.
If you’re now wondering if other healthy and non-healthy snacks have more or fewer calories than they say they do, it’s a valid question.
Experts tell Healthline the change in almond packaging isn’t a sign that all labels on product packaging are wrong. It’s important to realize the scale of the almond calorie reduction.
“These reductions in calories are relatively modest,” said Lindsay Moyer, MS, RDN, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Nuts are still a calorie-dense food — they’re still relatively high in calories per bite. This finding doesn’t turn almonds into celery.”
The five nut studies, published first in 2012 and most recently in 2018, were funded by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Almond Board of California, among others.
In the research, almonds were found to have 129 calories of metabolizable energy per ounce instead of about 170.
“We’re still using a lot of the data from the late 1800s and very early 1900s, so we thought there might be a difference,” David J. Baer, a USDA researcher who co-authored the study, told Healthline. “We didn’t know if it was just going to be a few percent or how big.”
How calories are calculated
The calorie discrepancy doesn’t mean the Atwater systemTrusted Source — the system created by chemist Wilbur O. Atwater that’s used to determine calorie values on the food labels we see — isn’t doing its job.
According to the system, the average number of calories in a food is determined by three factors: fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Fats are worth 9 calories per gram, while carbs and proteins are worth 4 calories per gram (also known as the 4-9-4 method).
“I think if you go by the food label, you’re going to be in the ballpark,” Baer said.
He noted there’s some inherent variability in fruits and vegetables depending on a variety of factors, such as “where they’re grown, growing season, and weather conditions, you might have more or less fiber, or more or less sugar, or any of the nutrients can be variable.”
Debbie Petitpain, MS, RDN, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, points to the KIND bar as an example.
“One might have two more almonds in it than the other. Technically, that’s going to change the nutrition,” she told Healthline. “When you’re looking at an apple, one apple might be slightly larger than the other. Technically, that will also change the nutrition.”
The calorie values on packaging weren’t created to be exact. They’re meant to serve as a guide.
“We use equations that have been developed that estimate how many calories you as an individual need,” Petitpain explained. “Just like the calories that you calculate for yourself is a ballpark guideline, it’s by no means exact. That’s the same thing that we’re providing when we get these nutrition facts on packaged food.”
All of the experts underscored the fact that each person is going to process foods differently as well.
“If I were to eat a cup of cereal and the label tells me that I should get 100 calories out of it — if my body is exceptionally good at doing its job, I might actually be able to extract 110 calories out of it,” Petitpain explained. “Whereas you might not be as good or efficient at getting the energy out, you might only get 90 calories out of it. So, there’s a lot of individual variability.”
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, Petitpain noted, describes the process of providing nutrition facts on foods and is enforced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“They don’t tell the companies how they have to come up with the numbers, but they do hold them accountable for the numbers being accurate,” she said. “But they realize the companies are using the very common estimating process for determining caloric needs.”
Moyer said there are FDA rules about how far off calorie labels can be, and the rules exist for a few reasons, mainly because food is an agricultural product and they’re not always exactly the same.
With food processing, for example, you’re not going to get the exact same product every time.
“So it’s reasonable to expect variation,” Moyer added. “Packaged foods may contain up to 20 percent more calories than their labels state.”
For example, a snack that’s labeled as having 200 calories per serving could contain up to 240 calories. Or an entree that’s labeled as containing 500 could contain up to 600, Moyer noted.
Alternatively, these foods could also contain fewer calories, too.
“Another thing that people may not know about labels… [is that] calorie numbers are rounded,” Moyer added. “So anything with more than 50 calories is rounded to the nearest 10 on the label.”
If the almond discrepancy has you skeptical of every label in sight, lower your eyebrow.
“This doesn’t seem to be a widespread discrepancy across food categories and food forms,” Moyer advised. “The way that we estimate calories is still a valid basis for making decisions about foods.”
The experts say label updates like this may only have a significant impact on foods that mostly contain nuts.
Baer is now focusing his attentions on fiber-rich chickpeas and lentils, which may also have fewer calories than previously thought.
“I think particularly with the work we’ve done with the tree nuts and being able to provide more accurate information on the calories, it could be something that helps reduce the barrier to consumption for some consumers at least,” he said.
“Nuts are healthy,” Moyer added. “They’re rich in healthy fats and vitamins and minerals. We want people to eat them but not to go nuts, meaning not to take this to mean that all nuts are dramatically lower in calories than their labels state.”