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Nutrition facts calculated based on ingredients

I'm sure there's a lot of people dieting now that it's the new year. Thanks to that "Nutrition Facts" label, it's easy to count calories, carbs or pretty much anything else. How do they figure out the calculations that go on the package?  Is there some sort of computer stomach?

— "Calorie Counter"

Unfortunately, magic computer stomachs are still a ways off in the future. Instead we have science and math to determine the nutritional value of the foods we eat.

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, standardized state laws about how nutrition facts are labeled, along with oversight by the Food and Drug Administration.

Calories were once determined by using a device called a bomb calorimeter, which burned food undergoing nutrition testing in a sealed container surrounded by water and measuring the temperature change, according to an archived "Scientific American" article. As of the article's publication in 2003, the practice was no longer common.

The FDA doesn't perform tests for food manufacturers, but does perform random tests to ensure compliance.

The FDA recommends manufacturers use methods from the Association of Official Analytical Chemists International, to calculate packaged food's nutritional value based on the values of the ingredients that went into it. The US Department of Agriculture keeps a national Nutrient Database for over 9,000 ingredients that manufacturers can use to calculate information for the label.

Other manufacturers may contract with testing firms such as FoodLab and NutriData to calculate a packaged food's nutrition and ingredient statements.

—Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. To see a collection of columns, go to mailtribune.com/youasked. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.