Public Release: 

Penn State researcher says energy density should be listed on nutrition facts label

Penn State

San Diego, Calif. -- Energy density -- the number of calories per ounce -- should be listed on packaged food Nutrition Facts labels, says a Penn State researcher.

Dr. Barbara Rolls, who holds Penn State's Guthrie Chair of Nutrition in the College of Health and Human Development, says, "When you make even small changes in the energy density of a food, by adding vegetables or fruit or by reducing fat content, it can have a big effect on intake."

Rolls is one of three researchers scheduled to speak at a Hot Topic Minisymposium, Energy Density- A New Approach to Foods? Sunday, April 16, at the Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, California. She is co-author of the new best-selling weight management book, "Volumetrics: Feel Full on Fewer Calories" which takes the position, based on her research, that people can enjoy their favorite foods, feel full after meals and still lose weight.

The basic strategy of "Volumetrics" -- eat a satisfying volume of food while controlling calories and meeting nutrient requirements -- is based on a series of studies conducted by Rolls in Penn State's Laboratory for the Study of Human Ingestive Behavior over the last seven years.

These studies show that eating your usual amount but selecting low-energy density foods, which have fewer calories per ounce, offers a way to cut back on calories and still leave the table feeling full and satisfied.

In a recent interview, Rolls noted that "We are being offered high-calorie dense, high-fat foods by restaurateurs and food manufacturers. Those foods are easy to overeat and are contributing to our current obesity epidemic."

For example, Rolls points to the grilled chicken breast sandwich offered by some fast food chains. Grilled chicken breast is a healthy choice but the default option offered with it is full fat mayonnaise, which is high in fat and calories.

Why not a food bar where customers could bulk up their chicken breast sandwich with veggies and smear on some mustard instead of mayonnaise? Rolls asks. "You can reduce the energy density of foods and still produce foods that people will enjoy," she insists.

She points to several less energy dense "success stories" including reduced calorie, reduced fat luncheon meats, yogurt and salad dressings as proof that tasty, low-energy dense foods are possible ­ and profitable.

Putting energy density on the nutrition facts labels would make it easier for consumers to compare, and select foods that reduce calorie intake but still provide satisfaction.

"I want to see restaurateurs and food manufacturers putting effort into producing more tasty, lower calorie foods that don't cost more," she adds. "People will spontaneously reduce their calorie intake if you reduce energy density and keep the foods tasty because they eat roughly the same weight or volume of food each day."

Rolls laments the introduction by the food industry of "supersized" portions which her research and that of others has shown encourage both adults and children to eat more than they should.

"We're in the middle of an epidemic of people eating too many calories. Portion control in our overfed society is an important health consideration," she says, "It's not hard to think about healthier options for consumers. It's not always fat and sugar and salt that sells food," she says.

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EDITORS: Dr. Rolls is at 814-863-8482 or bjr4@psu.edu by email.

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