In recent years, scientists discovered that the standard way of measuring calories for some foods was flawed.
Most of the data on the energy value of foods — also known as calories — was generated in the late 1890s and in the early 1900s, David Baer, a USDA researcher who works on these studies, told Food Dive. He said there's also some research from the 1940s, "but that's about it."
"We kind of rely on this really, really old data," he said.
But that changed when researchers discovered a different method to calculate calories. Using this new technique, USDA's Agricultural Research Service found that whole nuts, like almonds and cashews, have 19% and 16% less calories, respectively, than previously thought because of the way consumers digest its fat.
As a result of this discovery, Kind Snacks is changing its labels. Kind announced Tuesday that it is the first national snack brand to update their labels based on this research. The company said that more than 95% of its nut bar portfolio will be impacted. Kind is lowering its calories by 10-30 per bar depending on the nuts they contain, the company said in a release shared with Food Dive.
This research began when Baer said some people had noticed that when consumers eat nuts, a lot of it is digested quickly. That made him think that if it's passing through, it's not being absorbed and therefore, the calories aren't either. However, there are some challenges to collecting the data because while they have the technology to measure the energy value of foods before and after digestion, it is difficult to determine the latter for each ingredient since people eat a variety of foods throughout the day, he said.
"You can't easily separate what isn't being digested from the nuts or the bread or the fruit or whatever else is in the diet," he said. "So we devised an approach, and then it actually required quite a bit of math to come up with the equations that would give us the energy value of say nuts when it's fed as part of a mixed diet."
Once they figured out the equation, scientists realized that the previous way of calculating calories was inaccurate for certain foods, like nuts.
So why is Kind making this change now? Stephanie Csaszar, Kind's health and wellness expert, told Food Dive that many other major nutrition bar brands contain a form of sugar or protein blend as the predominant ingredient, but Kind uses nuts. She hopes other brands with nuts follow Kind's lead in dropping their calorie counts.
"We really wanted to adopt this now because we feel that, first off, tree nut consumption has been growing significantly over the past several years, and we know that individuals are looking at calories in their decision-making for choosing a healthy snack, as well as trying to understand ways that they can make better food choices," Csaszar said. Tree nut consumption has grown 88% from 2000 to 2017, according to data provided by Kind.
"Our effort is focused on educating our community on the importance of this updated nut calorie research to help them make more informed food choices," Csaszar said. She noted that the company did not conduct its own testing on nut calories because of "the credibility of this research."
The snack bar maker's push to update and publicize its labels change could help it boost sales as its products drop in calorie count. Almost 90% of consumers read labels and calories are the second most checked item, according to the NPD Group.
While Kind didn't have any involvement or influence in the USDA's research on nuts, the company has advocated for nuts for years. In 2016, the FDA updated its definition of "healthy" to include high-fat products like almonds and avocados. Its decision to revise the definition came after Kind challenged an FDA warning letter saying it could not call its bars "healthy" because they had too much saturated fat. The FDA reversed its decision, and Kind has since used the term "healthy" on packaging.
"I think it's important for consumers to understand that the health benefits of the nut stands. We're just doing a better job determining how many calories you get from a serving."
A number of studies have found that nuts have various health benefits, including lowering the risk of obesity, reducing the risk of heart disease and containing high fiber and protein. Baer said this research about calories doesn't change that.
"I think it's important for consumers to understand that the health benefits of the nut stands," he said. "We're just doing a better job determining how many calories you get from a serving."
In addition to nuts, researchers at USDA are studying the calorie counts of other products, especially plant-based foods. Currently in the lab, Baer said they have a project looking at chickpeas and lentils. While most plant-based foods are not high in fat, they're high in fiber — and there's always been a question in the scientific community of how many calories there are in fiber, he said. To answer this question, they are using this same method.
"We're extending the approach to some different types of foods," he said. "We're about a third of the way through the study on chickpeas and lentils and we will finish with the feeding part of it by the end of February and then start to do some of the analyses."