Cookies' true calories may dismay diligent dieters
Popular, locally made Baker's Breakfast Cookies have more fat and carbohydrates than their labels show, an analysis finds.
Seattle Times business reporter
For Baker's Breakfast Cookie in Bellingham, an article in Woman's World magazine about Baker's loyalists losing dozens of pounds while eating the "high-energy" cookies unleashed an overwhelming response. Customers have complained they can't get through when calling the company's toll-free number to place an order.
But shedding pounds with Baker's Breakfast Cookies may not be as easy as fans think. An independent laboratory test performed for The Seattle Times found that two flavors of cookies contained about 100 more calories than their labels said, as well as more carbohydrates and fat.
Baker's owners Bryan Geschwill and Erin Baker-Geschwill explained that the nutritional data on the cookies' labels is the average from a sample batch, and that individual cookies may vary. They also acknowledged that the company's equipment produces inconsistent weights and dough mixes.
"We're not out there trying to deceive the public," said Geschwill, calling the past several years "one long learning curve for me and my wife."
"These are issues you deal with when you're a small, growing company," Geschwill said, describing the cookies as "a handmade product, essentially. It's not like a Frito-Lay production plant."
Because small food companies like Baker's receive minimal oversight from federal and state regulators, who concentrate on the largest national food makers, their labels' nutritional values often go unchecked.
When The Times sent two Baker's flavors off for lab tests in April, the results differed sharply from the labels.
"They're not even close," said Martin Mitchell, managing director of Certified Laboratories in Plainview, N.Y., which performed the analysis for The Times.
The analysis of Baker's Oatmeal Raisin and Mocha Chocolate Chunk cookies, both listed at 250 calories, found the actual calorie counts were 366 for Oatmeal Raisin and 370 for Mocha Chocolate Chunk. Even when spotting Baker's a 20-calorie deduction for insoluble fiber, the cookies weighed in at 346 and 350 calories, respectively, roughly 40 percent higher than the labeled totals.
The lab test also found that both cookies' labels undercounted carbohydrates by at least 15 grams and fat by at least 2 grams.
Mislabeling creates problems for dieters who count calories, and poses potential hazards for diabetics whose insulin doses are based on their carbohydrate intake. To burn off an extra 100 calories, a 150-pound person would have to walk or jog one mile.
"You may be eating 1,600, 1,700 calories a day when you think you're only eating 1,500 calories," said Ann Fittante, a nutritionist and exercise physiologist with the Joslin Diabetes Center at Swedish Medical Center on First Hill.
"Those calories are going to add up, and weight loss will be slower which is not a bad thing, but people just need to know," said Fittante, who in 2001 filed a complaint against Baker's with the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA referred the complaint to state regulators.
So far, the only action against the company has been a warning letter from the state for failing to list subingredients that can produce an allergic reaction, such as peanuts.
Geschwill said the cookies typically weigh around a half-ounce more than the 3.5 ounces listed on the package. He and his wife said tests have found the cookies to vary above and below what is listed.
Baker's recently bought a new dough-dispensing machine, which the owners say is more consistent. They said the new machine should be up and running this summer, when the company also will reveal new packaging and nutritional information.
For now, all but two of Baker's 13 flavors on the market are still labeled at under 300 calories, despite several lab tests to the contrary over the past two years performed for The Times, a Baker's competitor and Fittante.
Baker-Geschwill created the cookies at age 25 in a rented 4-H kitchen at the Whidbey Island fairground. Her recipes use natural ingredients such as brown-beet sugar and prune purée.
Since December 1995, the business has expanded its distribution from nearby coffee shops to supermarkets along the West Coast. Tapping into a growing market for healthy snacks, such as energy bars, Baker's added high-profile customers such as QFC and Thriftway stores and moved into larger bakeries. The company baked more than 18 million cookies last year and now operates out of a 22,000-square-foot bakery in Bellingham.
The cookies have been a favorite of Weight Watchers members for several years. Andrea Hansen of Seattle remembers that in 2000, members of her local Weight Watchers chapter became enamored with the cookies because they were said to count as two points of a daily diet regimen ranging from 22 to 29 points.
"If there is a food that all of a sudden gets touted because it has low points, it spreads like wildfire," Hansen said. "Baker's was one of those foods."
Both Baker's and Weight Watchers have since reformulated their nutritional calculations, and the most recent Weight Watchers food companion guide now lists four points for most full cookies. The laboratory analysis in April puts most cookies at six points.
Weight Watchers relies on manufacturers' nutritional data when compiling the food companion guide, spokeswoman Linda Webb Carilli said.
Fittante, the Swedish Medical Center nutritionist, got involved when a weight-loss patient came to her in January 2001 and asked if he could eat the thick, 4-ounce cookies. At the time, Baker's listed calories ranged from 205 to 235.
"I looked at the cookie and I said, 'There's no way there's got to be more calories,' " Fittante said. When Fittante called Baker's to raise her concerns, she said, the company stood by its nutritional information.
Fittante sent cookies to the New York Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, which found that the Oatmeal Raisin cookie had 452 calories.
In March 2001, the company reduced its labeled cookie size from 4 ounces to 3.5 ounces and increased its calorie counts ranging from 230 to 290. Fittante sent some of the new cookies to St. Luke's for another round of tests, which found that the new Oatmeal Raisin was 404 calories.
In a May 2001 letter to the company, Fittante said the company's labels were "not only untrue and irresponsible, but a potential medical problem for individuals who rely on accurate product labeling."
Fittante said a Baker's manager insisted the lab tests were wrong. Baker-Geschwill said the manager, who left the company in August 2001, never alerted her to the complaint. The manager could not be reached for comment.
"We have people that call us all the time that consider themselves nutritional vigilantes," Baker-Geschwill said recently.
Fittante filed a complaint with the Food and Drug Administration's district office in Bothell on May 31, 2001. By then, the FDA had compiled a report on Baker's suggesting that the company's nutritional data was suspect. In April 2001, based on a tip from a Baker's competitor, an FDA investigator reviewed Baker's nutrition claims and wrote in his report, "the calorie calculations as advertised are wrong."
FDA officials verbally referred Fittante's complaint to the Washington state Food Safety Program in July 2001, but the state did not receive the written complaint until May 27, after both agencies received requests for information from The Times.
Claudia Coles, manager of the Food Safety Program, said that agency doesn't have capacity to test nutritional content: "We're pretty well left with our hands tied."
Russell Gripp, director of compliance for the FDA's Seattle district, said recent calls from The Times had "raised our interest" in Baker's, hinting that the agency may investigate.
The FDA has nutrition labs, but Gripp said the Baker's complaint hasn't been a priority. Gripp said the FDA has used much of its limited resources on ways to combat bioterrorism, such as detecting and preventing the contamination of food.
"When 9/11 happened, it really changed the focus of what we have to concentrate on," Gripp said.
Baker's isn't the only food popular with dieters to encounter labeling problems.
Last year, snack food Pirate's Booty was recalled after a test by the Good Housekeeping Institute revealed that it had more fat and calories than billed on the label. And in 2001, a newspaper investigation found that a South Florida brand of ice cream called Big Daddy contained triple the calories and fat it advertised.
But nutrition experts say that for the most part, the numbers on small to midsized companies' labels slip under the government's radar a point the FDA's Gripp concedes.
"As a dietitian, it's really frustrating," said Dorene Robinson, director of nutrition and education for Beyond Fitness, a Bellevue consulting firm that trains health and fitness professionals in weight management. "It's all on the shoulders of the company to be honest about it."
From a dieter's standpoint, reliable nutritional information is essential, said Dana Bland, a Weight Watchers member from Richmond, Va., whose daily diet has included the cookies.
"I don't mind spending six or eight points on a breakfast food, especially if I'm going to be active that day," Bland said. "My beef is truth in advertising, and having accurate nutrition information."
Jake Batsell: 206-464-2718.