Label For the first time in two decades, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed sweeping changes to the familiar nutrition labels on food packages. If the changes are approved, labels would display calories per serving in very large, hard-to-ignore numbers. Nutritionists applaud the change, convinced that prominent calorie counts will help people lose weight and keep it off. But are those calorie counts accurate?

Maybe not, says Harvard University scientist Richard Wrangham, who believes that many of the official numbers are wrong. “Where foods are highly processed, such as white bread or a Twinkie, the calories on the package are probably reliable,” he says. “But for less processed foods, you’re probably getting fewer calories than the official caloric value.” Wrangham thinks some numbers may be off by 30 percent or more.

That’s because the calories listed on labels are determined by a method that ignores whether the food has been processed, cooked, or otherwise made more easily digested. Wrangham says the physical structure of food influences how much of it the body absorbs. Foods that are harder to digest, like chewy whole grains or raw kale, ultimately provide fewer calories than processed foods, such as wheat bread made from pulverized flour or a kale smoothie that’s been liquified in a blender.

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