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Quinn on Nutrition: Confusing facts about nutrition labels

February 22, 2016

"It all started with a can of refried beans," a reader writes. "The nutrition label said a serving size was 1/2 cup and "about 3.5 servings" per container, which should be "about" 1.75 cups total in the can. I measured out servings and realized there were exactly 3 servings, or 1.5 cups in the can. 

"Next time I indulged in refried’s, same thing — exactly 1.5 cups, or 3 servings, of beans. Now I’ve become a bit obsessive and have found the same thing with every food I buy that has the qualifier "about" as part of the servings/container. And the "about" is never more, it is consistently less. 

"How then should I calculate the nutritional values? If the label says there are 100 calories/serving, a serving is 0.5 cup, and there are "about" 3.5 servings in the can, are there 350 calories in the can or — since there are really only 3 servings in the can — are there 300 calories in the can? Argh.

"My grumpy old lady question is, who oversees what is put on these labels? And how is it legit for food companies to consistently over-report the nutritional values in the container?"

Dear grumpy reader, 

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees the regulations that dictate what manufacturers put on food labels. Food companies are required to declare serving sizes in household measures — such as "cups" — in addition to the food’s actual weight in grams (g). And serving sizes for specific products must adhere to FDAs list of "Recommended Amounts Customarily Consumed" (RACC).

Products like refried beans with 2 to 5 servings per can must be rounded up to the nearest one-half cup for example, while products with more than 5 servings per container must be rounded up to  the nearest one cup. Thus, servings in a package, as per FDA rules, are not always exact but "about."

Here’s an example:

Mr. Bean Manufacturer finds in the FDA regulations that 130 grams (g) is the RACC for refried beans. 

He must then determine the household measure of his beans that weighs 130 grams. Let’s say it’s 1/3 cup.

But the required serving size for this type of product must be listed in 1/2 cup increments that weigh as close to 130 grams as possible. 

Therefore Mr. Bean maker must round the 1/3 cup that weighs 130 grams up to 1/2 cup for the food label. And he must also list on the label the actual weight (in grams) of this 1/2 cup, which may be more or less than 130 grams. (This even makes me feel grumpy.)

Your most accurate number to figure actual serving sizes then, is the weight of the serving, not the household measure. BTW, the name and address of the manufacturer must also be listed on the food label if you have questions about a specific product. 

And if we’re not confused enough, food label regulations are currently being revised. Stay tuned…

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