how to get accurate calorie counts and nutrition facts

Getting accurate numbers on the calories and macros of food can be tricky. We often rely on Google for information that we assume is reliable. Absolutely. Remember though, Google is amazing and finds you everything to your heart’s content, but the information we end up with is not by Google. Things we stumble upon from the internet could be created by anyone who can create a website and deploy efficient SEO talents to make their content show up at the top of your search. It doesn’t mean the first thing you lay eyes on is true.

Another instance is landing on a calorie counter website or app like MyFitnessPal, nutritiondata.com, caloriecount.com and many others; all of which I do not want to discount for being absolutely great resources that encourage users to be more conscious of their health, diet and life. However, we can’t forget that the data isn’t guaranteed to be accurate as it may often be inputted by users or the company itself. The most popular errors are user errors which happens often when it comes to counting calories because understanding serving sizes is basically rocket science if you’re not paying enough attention. Even I get it wrong, sometimes, as will others who are often in a rush when Googling for an answer.

I found this encounter of inaccurate data troubling when I was working as a dietitian assistant during undergrad. My job was to create information-packed nutrition handouts that would outline the very little details such as the potassium content of a food in milligrams or fiber content of something even if it was less than a single gram, and so on. By the way, my time there was amazing and worth every second because I learned more in the field than in school. Note to nutrition students: volunteer and be out there! As tedious as it is to collect the smallest piece of detail about a food, it is our job as nutrition educators to provide reliable deets. What was frustrating was when I noticed that Google had this new feature (2013) to quickly find the nutritional content of a food when you query it. You can also adjust the serving size in the box that appears to tailor it to your personal curiosity.

Even though Google tells you the source of their nutritional data “includes USDA,” they’re being quite vague. There has been many times where I searched directly from USDA’s National Nutrient Database, which you can find here (http://ndb.nal.usda.gov) and ended up with contrasting results. For example, when I searched “nutrition content of black mission figs” on Google, the nutrition facts table for 1 cup or 261 grams of figs is conveniently displayed at the top of the screen:

Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 11.45.36 PM

On the other hand, pulled directly from USDA’s site for the same serving size of 261 grams is:

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 12.32.44 AM.png

Here’s a comparison chart:

 serving size calories carbohydrate protein fat fiber
Google 1 cup / 261 g  279  73 g  1  .3 g  7.6 g
USDA (direct) 1 cup / 261 g  193  50 g  1.96 g  .78 g  7.6 g

Hence, the source for this particular item is probably not USDA. Hence, frustrating.

The fiber content wasn’t listed immediately from Google’s quick feature for the 1 cup serving size, but I was able to calculate it based on the fiber content that was listed after I changed the type from common fig to fig (another confusing factor) and serving size to 100 g.

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 12.46.06 AM

Do the math and 2.9 g per 100 g multiplied by 2.61 to bring it up to 261 grams gives you 7.569 grams of fiber. Fiber ends up being the only value that matches between the two sources, which makes this whole process very unreliable. Do you feel conflicted? You can’t make logical sense out of it because while the calories and carbs are higher from Google, the protein is significantly lower.

Moving on, nutrition scientist mode now off. Not to say that Google is wrong because who knows if the .gov website’s nutrient database stays up to date, but the takeaway from this is to be more aware of your searches as well as your sources! Learn how to interpret nutrition facts labels and understand the meaning of serving sizes, servings in container, and amount per serving. Check the labels on the food packaging if available (you won’t find them on fresh produce) just to be sure. Once you find a calorie counter website/app that you trust, stick with it to stay consistent. And if you’re serious about getting your caloric intake down, weigh your food and calculate the macros yourself with the following conversion factors:

4 calories per gram of protein
4 calories per gram of carbohydrate
9 calories per gram of fat

Alas, these factors apply for protein, carbohydrate and fat; but not fiber, vitamins or minerals, as they do not contribute calories to diet. Differentiating between all three macronutrients in one food can be difficult, time-consuming or impossible. For example, a whole egg provides protein and fat, but if you carefully extract the yolk, you can weigh the yolk and whites separately and get a close number to the grams of each macro. Conversely, if you’d like to extract the fiber from your vegetables or fat from nuts for the sake of counting before dinner, it’s a bit more difficult or nearly impossible. Fortunately, it is easier to measure food cooked at home than prepackaged food or meals at a restaurant, which gives us, health-conscious folks, more reason to cook!

What’s your go to source for nutrient data? Anyone else feel the same as I do? All thoughts are welcome! Please share : )

Learn how calories are determined here: How Accurate Are Calorie Counts

Find: The Best Calorie Counter Apps of the Year

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2 thoughts on “how to get accurate calorie counts and nutrition facts

  1. Woah. I just gained so much insight from this post. I definitely agree that it’s hard to count calories accurately. And of course, I underestimate portion sizes since I don’t carry measuring cups everywhere. I use to use fitness pal, but I got pretty lazy with that. How do you count your food intake?

    • Thanks so much! I’m glad you found this post helpful. The best source would be to check the nutrition label on the packaging if there is one, the manufacturer’s website, or the USDA nutrient database for foods without labels. I also like MyFitnessPal because I’ve found it to be more accurate than others. Even though most of their entries are submitted by users, it’s still a great resource because items with complete nutrition information are marked with a green checkmark icon. That helps me stay consistent because I only choose items with the green checkmark. I will occasionally cross reference the information with the packaging and USDA database to check accuracy for foods I’m not sure about.

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