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How Canned Food Labels Lie (Hint: You're Being Cheated of Tuna)

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If your tuna sandwich has seemed a little skimpy lately, it's not your imagination. Starkist, the largest supplier of tuna in the U.S., was recently sued for under-filling their cans of fish. Under federal law, a five-ounce can must contain between 2.84 ounces and 3.23 ounces of tuna, depending on the type. (The remaining ounces are made up of liquid.) But customers allege they've been getting a lot less tuna than promised. While the company isn't admitting any wrong-doing, they are offering to give unhappy customers either $25 or $50 worth of Starkist products. If you purchased at least one five-ounce can of Starkist tuna February 19, 2009 through October 31, 2014, then you can sign up using this online claim form to get your money or tuna.

But this isn't just a tuna problem—it's an industry problem, with canned food regularly containing much less product than promised on the label, say analysts. An investigation done by Consumer Reports in 2013 found that canned food contained, on average, a mere 57 percent of what the label claimed it did. (Don't believe what you read! Hence these 5 Nutrition Label Tricks to Avoid.) While it's true that "net weight" includes both the solid food and the liquid used to preserve the food, the majority of cans came up short. For example, Hormel chicken chunks should be about 80 percent product and 20 percent water when drained gently, a spokesman for the company told Consumer Reports. But the cans tested by the investigators had just 54 percent chicken and 46 percent broth.

Part of the issue may be with the sizes of the cans themselves. As an example, the Consumer Reports researchers attempted to fill a can of chickpeas with the same amount listed as the weight on the can and simply couldn't cram that many in. They then tried to fit three half-cup servings into one can—the label specified that as the number and size of servings—but were also unable to. Taken together, these two tests seem to show that not only is there less food than stated on the label, but that it's not an accident. The cans aren't even big enough to hold the amount of food they say they contain!

While these discrepancies may seem small (what's half an ounce of tuna or a quarter cup of beans in the long run?), they can provide big headaches to consumers, particularly those trying to watch their calories or portion sizes. Diet boards across the web are replete with dieters trying to figure out how to accurately measure servings of canned foods and account for them in their diets. One frustrated person on CalorieCount asked the best way to track the calories from canned beans and got six completely different methods, complete with six different results.

So how do you accurately measure how much food is in your can? Consumer Reports advised buying vacuum-packed, freeze-dried, or packaged goods without added liquids (which can confuse the weight and calorie counts). Our thoughts: We shouldn't have to give up eating canned foods simply because of confusing measurements! Canned fruits, vegetables, legumes, and meats packaged without added sugars or preservatives can be healthy alternatives when fresh or frozen foods aren't available. (Case in point: these 10 Packaged Foods That Are Surprisingly Healthy.) Would it really be so hard to print an accurate label?

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