The calorie counts used as the basis of dietary advice and food labelling for the past 18 years are too low, The Grocer can reveal. 

Coming amid an apparent obesity epidemic, the draft findings of the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), composed of several of the UK’s leading nutritional experts, come as a shock. 

Adults’ recommended intake of calories, currently 2,000 for women and 2,500 for men, may be up to 16% too low. If the draft proposals are accepted in a 14-week scientific consultation, recommended intakes could potentially increase to 2,320 for women and a hefty 2,900 calories a day for men. 

The report concluded that the last major study on energy use, carried out by the now-defunct COMA committee in 1991, underestimated the amount of energy the average UK adults uses in a typical day. Studies using the Double Labelled Water technique, the most accurate way to measure energy use, found adults used up to 16% more energy than previously thought. 

As the technique was relatively new in 1991, researchers then based their calculations on observational studies that shut students in a room for a week and measured their breathing, a method prone to lead to nderestimation of activity. 

“This new methodology is not an issue for public debate: it’s rock-hard, bulletproof quantum physics level science, and it’s telling us energy use is higher than previously agreed,” said dietician Ursula Arens. “It’s very likely this will lead to revised figures being used in dietary advice and food labelling. At the same time, what we have to point out is that the ‘energy-in, energy-out’ principle still applies. Some 60% of UK adults are overweight, and even if the line in the sand on energy moves upwards, that means 60% of UK adults are still eating too much.” 

All the UK’s labelling schemes, including GDAs and traffic lights, are based around the 1991 energy report, so potential repercussions for manufacturers from the findings are huge. Industry sources expressed concern that revising figures and estimates at this stage could lead to consumer confusion and mistrust of scientific advice. 

A spokesman for the FSA agreed the impact of the new report could be “potentially very large”, but cautioned that its advice at this stage was unchanged. 

The SACN is not making recommendations at this time, pending the results of the scientific consultation. This will end mid February, and the committee will then present final recommendations to the FSA board by mid-2010.

400 extra calories – What would you choose?

Bowl of Alpen Swiss
Style MusIei
359 calories (per 100g)
Innocent Veg Pot Thai
Coconut Curry
400 calories (1 pot)
Two bags of Walkers
Ready-Salted crisps
366 calories
Regular Cheeseburger
(154g, inc. condiments)
Average 359 calories

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Editor's Comment: Upping the calorie count will turn reds to amber and ambers to green  (14 November 2009)
Red? Go ahead, say indifferent shoppers (7 November 2009)