HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >
Brewing beer, curing meat, or making cheese? Get great advice
TELL US

Do Calorie Labels Lie? =) Do calorie labels on a can include EVERYTHING in the can, or just the parts most often consumed? (For instance, syrups in canned fruit, oils in canned fish, etc)

fr1p May 27, 2013 08:35 AM

Having a debate yesterday with a friend of mine, talking about the calories in canned sardines.

We were talking about the extra calories that would be consumed if one were to eat a can of sardines a day. I remarked that I thought it wouldn't be that bad, since my friend usually drains all the oil out of his sardine cans (whereas I retain a little).

We got into a debate about the listed calories, in which he stated that he was "pretty sure" that the calories listed pertain to the sardines themselves, and not the sardines PLUS the olive oil in which they are packed. I stated the opposite, that I believe the label, by law, must account for everything in the can that could plausibly be consumed, including the oil.

After trying to research this online, we were at an impas. We could not find the regulations pertaining to food nutrition labels, at least not any provision talking about this topic.

Do any of you hounds out there have an idea about this? Do calories listed on a can refer to EVERYTHING in the can or just the solids etc? I still think it is everything, considering the high caloric content of items packed in oil which are, sans oil, very low calorie, but I'm happy to be proven wrong.

Many thanks!

  1. Caroline1 May 27, 2013 08:39 AM

    Everyone makes errors. We just have to hope for the best and carefully check portion size.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Caroline1
      s
      small h May 27, 2013 09:12 AM

      <Everyone makes errors. We just have to hope for the best and carefully check portion size.>

      What "errors" are you referring to? The OP is inquiring about whether the calories from food a consumer is unlikely to consume, like all the sardine oil, are included in the calorie count. I expect that they are, because there's no way to tell how much oil a consumer would drain off, and thus no way to give an accurate post-drained calorie count.

      1. re: small h
        Caroline1 May 27, 2013 11:46 AM

        MOST labels (but not all!) will indicate on the label whether the information is given for drained weight. Read the label and hope it is correct. There was a recent study done that showed that errors are not all that unusual in food labeling. But after all, they are intended as a guideline and not gospel. I use them as such. Restaurant disclosures are even less reliable. That's life!

        1. re: small h
          fr1p May 27, 2013 03:54 PM

          Correct. I'm not worried about the amount of calories or portions size, I'm just wondering if the label includes ALL the potential calories. I've never seen a label that mentions drained weight, but that doesn't mean they aren't out there.

      2. o
        ohmyyum May 27, 2013 09:22 AM

        If the oil weren't included, why are sardines packed in oil higher in calories and fat than that same brand of sardines packed in water?

        3 Replies
        1. re: ohmyyum
          fr1p May 27, 2013 03:54 PM

          Yep, and both I and my friend agree with that, the question is: does the label include -all- the oil, or just the assumed amount of oil you'd eat if you have the sardines, which happen to have some oil on them, and not the REST of the oil remaining in the can.

          1. re: fr1p
            Chemicalkinetics May 28, 2013 05:51 PM

            Only small part of the oil is included. However, yes, the oil is included.

          2. re: ohmyyum
            goodhealthgourmet May 28, 2013 05:40 PM

            If the oil weren't included, why are sardines packed in oil higher in calories and fat than that same brand of sardines packed in water?
            ~~~~~~~~
            - The sardines absorb some of the liquid in which they're packed.
            - Even when you "drain" the can, oil clings to the surface of the oil-packed sardines (of course you can blot it off, but that isn't presumed).

          3. k
            Klunco May 27, 2013 04:07 PM

            As a frequent canned sardine consumer I've wondered the same thing!

            Logically, I imagine the calories should include both sardines AND all the oil in the can (otherwise it would say drained), but I still have a hard time believing they are so low in calories with all that oil. I drain the oil myself (or toss a simple tomato salad with it).

            The point about water packed sardines being lower in calories makes sense, so the real question becomes, how much oil is in a can of sardines? Has anyone measured? I'm guessing it's around a tablespoon (120 calories), which if correct would mean the calories include all the oil.

            1. Sooeygun May 28, 2013 06:45 AM

              Well, at this site, the serving size has the qualifier of 'drained'.

              http://chickenofthesea.com/product_li...

              How does that compare to the numbers on your can?

              1. drongo May 28, 2013 08:14 AM

                The answer to your question, at least for the USA, is written in the Code of Federal Regulations. Specifically 21 CFR 101.9(b)(9). I quote the relevant part below:

                "The declaration of nutrient and food component content shall be on the basis of food as packaged or purchased with the exception of ... foods that are packed or canned in water, brine, or oil but whose liquid packing medium is not customarily consumed (e.g., canned fish, maraschino cherries, pickled fruits, and pickled vegetables). ..."

                2 Replies
                1. re: drongo
                  drongo May 28, 2013 04:29 PM

                  Sorry, I left off an important part of the quote from the US regulations. Added below (and with link):
                  "The declaration of nutrient and food component content shall be on the basis of food as packaged or purchased with the exception of … foods that are packed or canned in water, brine, or oil but whose liquid packing medium is not customarily consumed (e.g., canned fish, maraschino cherries, pickled fruits, and pickled vegetables). … Declaration of the nutrient and food component content of foods that are packed in liquid which is not customarily consumed shall be based on the drained solids."
                  http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2012... (scroll down to page 24).

                  The only ambiguity is whether or not the 'liquid packing medium' (oil, brine, etc.) is customarily consumed (and it's Yes or No -- not 50% consumed or whatever you might think realistic).

                  1. re: drongo
                    fr1p Jun 1, 2013 12:47 PM

                    Thank you so much for this info. But yeah, I'm still stuck on the question of "is the oil commonly consumed" etc. I know people who eat it all, but I myself always drain them. =)

                2. fldhkybnva May 28, 2013 03:42 PM

                  The calories on a product should refer to the entire contents of the package unless otherwise specified. For example, bacon is listed as per pan-fried slice so it does not account for the rendered fat. most other products, account for everything. You can look at the individual components and try to gauge. What was the fat content of the sardines? You have to look at the qualifiers for whatever is considered a serving. Even sometimes it will say fried which would be different than if it were roasted. most products list th calories for the raw item because they have no idea how you will cook it. For example, sausage, you could pan fry in it's own grease and to varying levels of doneness with varying amounts of rendered fat which would change the calorie content so the label refers to the raw product.

                  1. Chemicalkinetics May 28, 2013 04:38 PM

                    In your specific case, I don't believe the oil will be accounted for. This isn't so much because it is oil, but because most people do not consume all of the oil. I do believe the calories some of the oil.

                    In other word, when they did the experiment, they took a piece of the fish out (without excessive draining), ground it up, packed the substance up and perform a bomb calorimetry experiment.

                    17 Replies
                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                      drongo May 28, 2013 04:46 PM

                      Hi CK...

                      Since the food company rather than FDA does the testing, and because a lower Calorie number is better for the company than a higher number, I doubt your parenthetical comment "without excessive draining" -- I think the company will use as much draining as can pass the "red face" test. I myself (working as a scientist in an FDA-regulated industry) would at least wonder whether I could get away with using a centrifuge :) .

                      1. re: drongo
                        paulj May 28, 2013 04:49 PM

                        For some people lower calorie number is better, for others want higher calories. Some consumers want lower sodium, but maximum protein, or vitamins.

                        But is it manufacturer itself that does the testing, or some independent lab?

                        "Fish, sardine, Atlantic, canned in oil, drained solids with bone

                        Read More http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/f..."

                        1. re: paulj
                          drongo May 28, 2013 04:51 PM

                          Manufacturer. Unless they choose to outsource... in which case the contractor is not an "independent" lab.

                          1. re: drongo
                            paulj May 28, 2013 04:54 PM

                            There are companies that do this kind of testing:

                            http://www.intertek.com/agriculture/fda-food-nutrition-label-tests/
                            http://www.rlfoodtestinglaboratory.com/
                            http://www.foodtestinglab.com/nutritional-analysis.htm
                            http://abcr.com/nutritional-labeling.html
                            http://www.nutridata.com/FAQs_List.asp

                            1. re: paulj
                              Chemicalkinetics May 28, 2013 04:55 PM

                              :D I used to work for intertek -- like 2 months.

                          2. re: paulj
                            Chemicalkinetics May 28, 2013 04:54 PM

                            <But is it manufacturer itself that does the testing, or some independent lab?>

                            I believe that many companies rely on CRO (contract research organization) labs.

                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                              goodhealthgourmet May 28, 2013 06:00 PM

                              Chem, I know you already know this, but bomb calorimetry isn't really an accurate assessment anyway because it accounts for indigestible components. A lot of companies don't even bother with lab testing, they just look up the existing nutritional values for all the components of the product & add them together...and many of the values they're using are the outdated and inaccurate results of early calorimetry tests!

                              The bottom line is that nutrition facts should really only be used as a rough guide.

                              1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                Chemicalkinetics May 28, 2013 06:18 PM

                                <but bomb calorimetry isn't really an accurate assessment anyway because it accounts for indigestible components. >

                                I was thinking just that because bomb calorimetry will get calories (heat) from anything. Even artificial sweeteners like aspartame get burned, but surely aspartame is not listed as calories since human cannot use it. Fiber is another example.

                                What you said make perfect sense.

                                It is just that to calculate the food calories require one knows the food components. Most of the time, it is easy, but sometime it can be very hard. For example, the sardine with olive oil. It seems difficult to know the amount of olive oil get absorbed. Well, I suppose that they can do a before and after study and find out how much oil get adsorbed by a sardine.

                                Thanks for your input.

                                1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                  paulj May 28, 2013 06:44 PM

                                  We talked about this before. I think the basic numbers, calories for carbos, proteins, and fats were developed a century ago ( Wilbur Atwater), and used, with some modification, by the USDA since then. To some degree they do take into account digestibility and cooking. But there also been discussion about the need to improve the measurements.

                                  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/is-...

                                  1. re: paulj
                                    paulj May 28, 2013 09:48 PM

                                    " today's Atwater values: four calories per gram for proteins and carbohydrates, and nine for fats. These values, with some modifications, are the basis of calorie levels in USDA food tables, food-packaging labels, and restaurant menus."

                          3. re: drongo
                            Chemicalkinetics May 28, 2013 04:52 PM

                            I don't think most food companies really care that much because they don't think their customers really care.

                            The infamous Hungry-man nutrient facts (scroll down):

                            http://www.x-entertainment.com/articl...

                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                              m
                              mwhitmore Jun 1, 2013 08:45 AM

                              This is about the biggest piece of Nutrition Nazi Propaganda I have ever seen. Not just the hysterical tone, the ignorance about not-so-recent sodium and cholesterol research, but straight out factual inaccuracies: the potatoes are not the size of footballs. If you tell a Big Lie and repeat it often enough, people will believe it.

                              1. re: mwhitmore
                                Chemicalkinetics Jun 1, 2013 11:53 AM

                                Don't read everything, just look at this image:

                                http://www.x-entertainment.com/articl...

                                My point is that food companies do not really care all that much about listing something like this.

                            2. re: drongo
                              fr1p Jun 1, 2013 12:50 PM

                              Now you have me thinking. I should get the same brand sardine (Crown Prince Bristling, Single Layer, Olive Oil) and one version packed in water. Then remove all the olive oil from sample 1 and measure how much there is. Then see how many calories are in that amount of oil. If the canned calorie statement is for drained, then the oil calories should be fairly high, I would assume, and I could get an approximation of the total calories of drained sardine + remaining oil.

                              1. re: fr1p
                                Chemicalkinetics Jun 1, 2013 12:57 PM

                                < Then remove all the olive oil from sample 1 and measure how much there is. >

                                How do you plan to remove all the olive oil from the fish?

                                1. re: fr1p
                                  paulj Jun 1, 2013 01:36 PM

                                  I have a small can of anchovy fillets. Net wt is 56g, dr wt 31g.
                                  So there is roughly 25g of oil. At 9 calories/g (for fat) that is 225 calories.

                                  The nutrition label uses a serving size of 16g, 2 servings per can, 25 calories. So that is 50 calories in the fish.

                                  It breaks things down a bit more, Fat Cal 10/serving, 1g fat/serving, 4g protein/serving, or 16 cal/serving. The numbers add up.

                                  1. re: paulj
                                    Chemicalkinetics Jun 1, 2013 01:48 PM

                                    <1g fat/serving, 4g protein/serving, or 16 cal/serving. The numbers add up.>

                                    Nice. Now that you remind me, I think I still have a small jar of anchovy with oil.

                            3. goodhealthgourmet May 28, 2013 05:15 PM

                              For canned sardines, tuna, salmon & the like, the nutrition facts on the label apply to the *drained* product (perhaps with accommodation for absorption of a small amount of oil) even if that isn't specified in the serving info. The total drained weight of the can will always be a value close to what you get if you multiply the weight of a serving size (as specified in the nutrition facts) by the number of servings contained in the can. It should be appreciably lower than the *net* weight (total before draining) of the entire can.

                              Some products will also list both the net and drained weights on the package. For example, the front of a can of Trader Joe's Smoked Sardines in Olive Oil says the net weight is 4.2 oz (120g) and the drained weight is 3 oz (86g). The Nutrition Facts label on the back of the can states that one serving is 1/4 cup (55g), and that the can contains "about 1.5 servings." So if we total the weight of all servings in the can (55g x 1.5) we get 77.5g, which is much closer to the 86g drained weight listed on the front than it is to the 120g net weight of the can. Same goes for their canned tongol tuna - net wt is 6.5 oz (184g), drained wt is 4.68 oz (133g), and the can contains "about 2.5" 56g-servings...so the can contains ~140g worth of "servings" - a value much closer to the 133g drained wt than to the 184g net wt.

                              Does that make sense?

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                fr1p Jun 1, 2013 12:53 PM

                                Thank you for that.

                              Show Hidden Posts