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Video: Rossen: Are ‘diet’ frozen dessert labels true?

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    >>> we're back at 7:47 this morning on rossen reports. a new wave of lawsuits against the food industry . how accurate are the labels on the food you buy? "today" national investigative correspondent jeff rossen puts some popular diet deserts to the test.

    >> looking out for our girlish figures, goes right to the thighs. there's nothing better than binging on ice cream but who wants to gain the weight. a lot of us buy the lower calorie stuff trusting those labels. can you really believe them? this morning put down your spoon. we're getting the skinny on your favorite treats. they promise all the satisfaction with none of the guilt. diet deserts from frozen yogurts to ice cream and treats boasting lower calorie numbers dieters crave.

    >> they make me feel like i'm not overindulging.

    >> everybody wants to look like heidi column, skinny and fabulous.

    >> right there on the package.

    >> right there, front and center, buy me and you'll lose weight .

    >> reporter: nutritionist and nbc contributor joy bauer says you buy them because you're counting calories. she wants the numbers to be as accurate as possible. after all, they preportioned packaged foods.

    >> i'd like to see the calories right on the money. if you have a little wiggle room, i'd say 10%.

    >> should be 10% off tops.

    >> tops 10%.

    >> we found claims that aren't even close to what's in the package. we went shopping, buying nine individual diet deserts from popular brands. from ben & jerry 's to weight watchers , skinny cow , to the new sensation, arctic zero ice cream promising 150 calories for an entire pint. but don't be so sure. we put each sample in specially marked containers for our blind test , packed them in dry ice , then took them to emsl, a top food laboratory. there scientists tested each one for calories using the industry standard 's methods. the results, three of the products actually had fewer calories than the label claimed, skinny cow cookies and treatment truffle, frozen yogurt and ben & jerry 's fro yo half baked. chocolate frunlg brownie and stonyfield's frozen yogurt . but things are about to take a turn. take the weight watcher deserts, giant sunday cone, the candy bar , 16% more calories. the company told us they do rigorous testing to make sure labels are accurate.

    >> isn't that illegal for them to represent it in one way and have it, in fact, be something different?

    >> reporter: i'm glad you asked. believe it or not, it's completely legal. under fda regulations, packaged foods, even diet foods like this, can be as much as 20% off on the labels. the fda says to account for variation in portions.

    >> they know they can get away with it because the fda allows up to 20% wiggle room. so they push the envelope a little bit. there's variation. it's upsetting but it's legal.

    >> but the biggest gut buster of all, this new summertime craze, arctic zero ice cream . it promises 150 calories for the whole pint. sounds great. but in our test, theesults are less than appetizing. our sample of arctic zero vanilla maple had a whopping 46% more calories than the label. chocolate peanut butter , an incredible 68% more calories.

    >> that really upsets me, sticks a knife in my heart. i think that's horrible.

    >> reporter: arctic zero tells us its calorie counts are accurate so we asked to see their test results. we're still waiting.

    >> shame on this company, really. people are eating the whole pint in one sitting. you eat that every single day, listen at the end of the week, you have to walk an extra nine miles just to burn off those calories.

    >> reporter: savannah just screamed from across the studio, i hate you rossen. they say they test a dozen or so and take the average to ensure accuracy. how widespread is the rob, the numbers being off? experts say it's hard to know. the fda doesn't have the manpower to test most foods. so lester, these companies that make diet ice creams are on the honor system . we have to trust them.

    >> you did a good job. you understand a lot of people were perfectly happy in their ignorance.

    >> out the window.

    >> savannah has put a hit out on you.

    >> natalie.

By
TODAY
updated 8/20/2012 7:48:42 AM ET 2012-08-20T11:48:42

How accurate are the labels on the food you buy? TODAY National Investigative Correspondent Jeff Rossen put some popular diet desserts to the test.

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Let's face it: There's nothing better than bingeing on ice cream. But who wants to gain the weight? So a lot of us buy the lower calorie stuff, trusting those labels. But can you really believe them? Put down your spoon: We're getting the skinny on your favorite treats.

Have an idea for Rossen Reports? Email us by clicking here!

They promise all the satisfaction with none of the guilt: Diet desserts from frozen yogurts to ice creams and treats boasting low calorie numbers dieters crave. “It’s right there, front and center (on the package)," nutritionist and NBC News contributor Joy Bauer told us. "Buy me and you'll lose weight."

Bauer said you buy these diet products because you're counting calories, so she wants the numbers to be as accurate as possible. After all, these are pre-portioned, packaged foods. "I'd like to see the calories right on the money, but if you had a little wiggle room, I'd say no more than 10 percent."

Story: Rossen Reports: Are sunscreen labels misleading you?

But we found claims that aren't even close to what's on the package. We went shopping, buying nine individual diet desserts from popular brands, from Ben & Jerry's to Weight Watchers to Skinny Cow to the new sensation, Arctic Zero ice cream, which promises 150 calories for an entire pint. But don't be so sure.

We put each sample in specially marked containers for out blind test, packed them in dry ice, then took them to EMSL, a top food laboratory. There, scientists tested each one for calories, using the industry's standard methods.

The results? Three of the products actually had fewer calories than the label claimed: the Skinny Cow Cookies n' Cream Truffle Bar, Stonyfield Minty Chocolate Chip Frozen Yogurt, and Ben & Jerry's Fro-Yo Half-Baked. Two others had a bit more calories, but were within 10 percent of the label: Ben & Jerry's Fro-Yo Chocolate Fudge Brownie and Stonyfield's Creme Caramel Frozen Yogurt.

Read more investigative journalism from Rossen Reports

But from there things took a turn. Take the Weight Watchers desserts: the Giant Chocolate Fudge Sundae Cone came in with 13 percent more calories than the label; the Ice Cream Candy Bar, 16 percent more calories. The company told us it does rigorous testing to make sure the labels are accurate.

Believe it or not, it's completely legal. Under FDA regulations, packaged foods, even diet foods like these, can be as much as 20 percent off on their labels — the FDA says "to account for variation in portions."

"They know they can get away with it, because the FDA allows up to 20 percent wiggle room, so you know they push the envelope a little bit," Joy Bauer explained. "There's variation. It's upsetting, but it's legal."

But the biggest gut-buster of all: the new summertime craze, Arctic Zero ice cream. It promises 150 calories for the whole pint: Sounds great. But in our test, the results were less than appetizing.

Our sample of Arctic Zero Vanilla Maple had a whopping 46 percent more calories than the label. The Chocolate Peanut Butter: an incredible 68 percent more calories.

Arctic Zero told us its calorie counts are accurate. So we asked to see their test results — and we're still waiting. Update, 3/21/14: Arctic Zero provided a link to their test results; view them here: http://www.arcticzero.com/EMSL-Results.php

"Shame on this company," Joy Bauer said. "People, they are eating the whole pint in one sitting. You eat that every single day, listen, at the end of the week you have to walk an extra nine miles just to burn off those calories."

The industry's trade group told us: When most companies come up with their labels, they test a dozen samples and take the average — they say, to ensure accuracy.

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So how widespread is this problem, the numbers being off? Experts say it's hard to know. The FDA doesn't have the manpower to test most foods — so companies are on the honor system.

To read statements from Wells Enterprises and Weight Watchers in response to this report, click here .

Have an idea for a future edition of Rossen Reports? We want to hear from you! To send us your ideas, click here.

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