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Buyer Beware: Product Labels Don't Always Measure Up

By Jim Core
September 28, 2004

A new study by Agricultural Research Service scientists in Beltsville, Md., may have some surprising news for consumers: Many single-serving sized food products provide more food than is advertised. However, this is not necessarily good news for many Americans.

ARS scientists wanted to evaluate the reliability of weights stated on single-serving-sized commercial food products to see if researchers could depend on what was printed on labels in place of determining actual weights. Products sold as single portions, such as serving-sized boxes of cereal, packaged desserts or canned fruit, are commonly used as part of controlled diets prepared for research studies.

Three researchers at the ARS Beltsville (Md.) Human Nutrition Research Center (BHNRC) present these findings in the September issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Joan Conway, a research chemist in BHNRC's Diet and Human Performance Laboratory (DHPL); Donna Rhodes, a nutritionist with the BHNRC's Food Surveys Research Group; and William V. Rumpler, a physiologist in the DHPL, conducted the study to determine the accuracy of label weights on 99 food items prepared for human volunteers during controlled feeding studies. Only 37 food items were found to be statistically accurate. Fifteen items were below weight, making them potentially out of compliance with federal guidelines. However, 47 products were found to contain more food than promised.

According to Conway, the researchers concluded that diabetics and other people on strict dietary regimens also might want to weigh portions to ensure they match weights listed on a variety of packages.

The food products evaluated were selected based on the needs of two recent feeding studies at BHNRC.

The federal government requires the food industry to meet guidelines for a minimum weight per package. These guidelines are meant to protect consumers from shortages in product weight.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.