Counting of Calories Isnt Always
Anyone who counts calories by using the figures on menus in fast-food
restaurants or on the packages of frozen meals may want to count
again. When researchers tested the food served in 29 chain restaurants
and 10 frozen meals sold in supermarkets, they found that their
calorie content averaged considerably more than the stated values.
Not all restaurants were inaccurate, and a few even stated that
their foods contained more calories than they actually did. Moreover,
the variations were within the 20 percent margin the Food and
Drug Administration allows for packaged food. (The agency does
not specify maximum overage for restaurant meals, but those, too,
fell within the 20 percent limit.)
For their survey, the researchers selected typical American foods
that the menus said were under 500 calories. The supermarket samples
were frozen complete meals that could be considered an alternative
to eating out.
Some of the disparities were startling. At Dennys, a serving
of grits, listed at 80 calories, tested at 258. The label on Lean
Cuisines shrimp and angel-hair pasta says it has 220 calories,
but the researchers measured it at 319. They found 344 calories
in a Wendys grilled chicken wrap listed at 260.
Misstatements went the other way, too. Fifteen of the samples
had fewer calories than the stated amount. Dennys dry English
muffin, for example contained 6 percent fewer calories than listed
on the menu. A slice of Dominos thin-crust cheese pizza,
listed at 180 calories, actually contained only 141.
The National Restaurant Association, an industry trade group,
did not respond to several requests for comment, but a spokesman
for Wendys, Bob Bertini, said the chain tested the calorie
content of its foods in independent laboratories, and posted the
results in its restaurants and on its Web site.
Still, he acknowledged, each meal is different. Since our
food is handmade, there can be variance in calorie counts,
he said. One sandwich may have more mustard or mayonnaise,
the next may have no lettuce or tomato.
Susan B. Roberts, the senior author of the study, agreed that
it was not fair to single out any restaurant or food manufacturer
because, among other things, her study used only one sample from
each vendor, and portion size can vary.
Although the average variance 18 percent more calories
than listed is significant, she said, we dont
know whether some restaurants are worse than others. That
would require a different study using many samples from each of
Manufacturers of packaged food face another problem, Dr. Roberts
said. The F.D.A. imposes significant penalties for selling underweight
packages. So manufacturers may err on the side of more weight,
adding more calories to the product.
Dr. Roberts, who is a professor of nutrition at Tufts, said free
side dishes added to the problem: they can have more calories
than the main dish itself. The calorie counts of side dishes
are often listed separately, she said, and you dont
get an accurate count. Thats a huge source of hidden calories.
Jennifer L. Pomeranz of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Nutrition
at Yale said the study presented a clear case for government intervention.
If a restaurant voluntarily discloses calorie counts, theres
no guarantee that its accurate, she said. But
when the government requires it, then the government will monitor
the accuracy of the information.
Dr. Roberts, said the impetus for the research was her own experience.
She put herself on a weight-loss diet based on the calories on
fast-food menus and realized that restaurants were offering
more calories than they were admitting to.
January 19, 2010