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