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Consumer alert

Food labels often don’t tell whole story on nutrition

Q. Our family buys ground turkey rather than ground beef. Still, if you read the label, the fat content of ground turkey is not necessarily conducive to good health. Here is one case in point from our freezer: “lean Ground Turkey,” advertised as “93% Lean, 7% Fat.”

Turn the package over and read the label and you get a different story. The nutrition facts say that in a 4-ounce serving, there are 160 calories, of which 70 calories are from fat. My math says that this ground turkey is 43.75 percent fat, not 7 percent. My complaint here is that these companies are engaging in deceptive product labeling, something the [federal government] apparently allows them to do, selling something as healthier than it really is. Somehow, I think that the protein has some value in calories, or am I missing some important knowledge about food content?

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BEN MYERS, HARVARD

A. Food labels can be misleading. But this is a situation that’s confusing because of how the figures are calculated.

First, the Department of Agriculture does not require nutrition labels on ground poultry. However, when the label claims the product is lean, then a nutrition label must go on to support that claim.

“When a food label lists fat as a percent — ‘93 percent lean contains 7 percent fat’ — they are referring to the percent of the actual weight of the product that contains, or does not contain fat,” explained Debbi Beauvais, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Protein and carbohydrates contain less than half the calories of fat, she said. In other words, fat content is going to account for a far greater percentage of calories. So, your math is correct — it just doesn’t account for the percentage of fat by weight.

Food labels can be both a consumer’s best friend and worst enemy. Understanding them is key. More on that soon. Have you seen any labels that you found misleading?

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.
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