Nutrition guide contains junk facts, GAO reports

November 23, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The federal government's information on nutrients in food, used around the world to determine public nutrition policy, plan feeding programs, do medical research and answer questions such as how much fat is in a sirloin steak, is flawed and unreliable, according to a federal report issued yesterday.

For an average person on a diet who is counting calories or grams of fat, or for people on low-sodium diets, the inaccuracies found by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, could be a problem.

In some cases the nutrition information in the publication known as Handbook 8 is wrong, the GAO said, and in many other cases, the flaws are a matter of sloppy, inconsistent or questionable collection of data.

Although the extent of the problem is not yet clear, there are instances where fat and fiber estimates for certain foods are considerably different from the data that other government agencies report on the same items.

For example, Handbook 8 says there are 3,000 international units of vitamin A in a papaya, while new methodology available elsewhere indicates there are only 400 units.

Steps to reconcile all the inconsistencies would require vast sums for testing each individual food and are a long way off.

Some nutritionists and researchers yesterday expressed shock at the GAO's assessment of Handbook 8, which gives the nutrient analysis of thousands of foods. Others said they had suspected flaws for some time. Marion Nestle, head of the department of nutrition at New York University, expressed dismay over the report because "it puts the credibility of nutrition information on the front pages again."

"Every single dietary intake survey done in this country is based on Handbook 8," she said. "It is the basis of all food assistance programs." The report says the agency often does not have enough samples on which to base the data and accepts data with "little or no supporting information on the testing and quality assurance procedures used to develop the data."

For example, it says the nutrient data on bacon-cheeseburgers comes primarily from brochures provided by fast-food chains, which do not explain how the data were determined.

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