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Making sense of food labels

Posted by Mitch Lipka  May 14, 2013 10:17 AM

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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. I asked one of the companies and they said that’s just the way it is.

Am I missing some important knowledge about food content?

Ben Myers, Harvard

A. Food labels can be misleading. They are really advertisements, after all. But this is a situation that’s confusing because of how the figures are calculated.

First, the US Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat, 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% lean contains 7% 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, a professional association in Chicago.

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, just the
share of calories.

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?

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Mitch Lipka is one of America's leading consumer journalists and advocates. He is an expert in product safety, recalls, scams, and helping consumers get out of jams. He is a nationally known consumer columnist and runs He lives in Worcester. You can find him on Facebook or reach him at


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