Caloric Relativity

If you count calories, this article is for you. If you’ve ever wondered if the calorie count on foods was accurate, then you have come to the right place. In this article, we will examine the issue with, a self-proclaimed moniker, caloric relativity. Labeled caloric counts are not accurate, yet is it something to worry about? With the use of, strangely enough, psychology we will examine how this is not as devastating news as one might imagine.

Are food labels inaccurate?
Yes; without any other factors involved, a food label can be as much as 20% off from its written amount [1].


How are food labels inaccurate?
First, the law allows a 20% range of accuracy for food labels [1]. Essentially, something labeled as 200 calories can be as much as 240 or 160 calories, in reality. Also, foods that are processed tend to be more accurate to their identified value, because more factors are accounted for before measurement, yet whole, unprocessed foods can range [2]. Another note to consider is the impact of the macronutrient make up of said calories – taking into consideration the thermic effect of food and digestion changes due to the ingestion style (puree, whole, drink, etc)[2].

How should we interpret this?
Well, certain people would argue that this will only impact a certain subset of people. People that are trying to gain weight may have trouble doing so, because the calorie number on the food label tends to be an underestimation [2]. Yet, even so, we can actually forgo the hard science and take a look at psychology to offer us insight on how impactful any of this actually is to anyone using calories as a guide.

Psychology as a Solution

In a vacuum, inaccurate food labels absolutely matter. With context, inaccurate food labels also matter, but to a far lower degree. If a person were to eat a package of a new found food that was advertised as having 100 calories, yet the actual caloric amount was 110 calories, this would seem like an issue – however, not always. A single meal with a new food could throw off a person’s caloric intake for that day (albeit barely, in all likelihood), but that is assuming one fundamental that cannot be assumed; namely, people are not habitual.

However, this is not the case. People are driven by habit [3][4]. If a person enjoys foods 1 through 18, they will habitually consume those foods. Then, if a person tries food 19 and does not enjoy it, the food’s real caloric amount would be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things as that food would likely never be consumed again. However, assuming that this new food, food 19, is enjoyable, the person would start consuming food 19 more frequently until the food becomes a habitual part of the nutrition plan. So, in this case, the person is often subjecting themselves to an unknown caloric amount (could be more or less than expected), and that heightened or lowered caloric amount would, if extreme, reflect on the weight scale. So, what happens? We adjust by eating more or less to acclimate to this new food being habitually consumed.

The point is, our psychology protects us from having the relatively unpredictable calorie count be an issue, because we unknowingly aim for a type of homeostasis by eating the same foods often enough to create a buffer from the occasional introduction of new foods – to which we would adjust accordingly if necessary. Of course, this is only applicable to those that count their calories religiously and keep track of their weight – and to everyone else, I doubt it matters much one way or another.


Food labels are inaccurate for a variety of reasons, but none of those reasons matter if our habits have anything to say about it. If we habitually begin eating a new food with an unknown caloric amount, we simply look to see the impact on the scale, then readjust quantity to make up the difference. We can assume this, because humans are mired in habit, which plays to our favor when it comes down to our food intake. 

Writer: Nicolas Verhoeven

[1] When Nutrition Labels Lie - US News. (n.d.). Retrieved from


[2] Rettner, R. (2013, February 1). Calorie Labels Inaccurate, Experts Say. Retrieved from

[3] Gardner, B. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. British Journal of General Practice, 62(605), 664-665. Retrieved from

[4] Noe, A. (2010, September 24). The Habitual Brain: How Routine Action And Thought Are The Structure Of Life : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture : NPR. Retrieved from

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