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Counting of Calories Isn’t Always Accurate

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 Denny’s, a serving of grits, listed at 80 calories, tested at 258. The label on Lean Cuisine’s shrimp and angel-hair pasta says it has 220 calories, but the researchers measured it at 319. They found 344 calories in a Wendy’s grilled chicken wrap listed at 260.

Misstatements went the other way, too. Fifteen of the samples had fewer calories than the stated amount. Denny’s dry English muffin, for example contained 6 percent fewer calories than listed on the menu. A slice of Domino’s 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 Wendy’s, 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 don’t know whether some restaurants are worse than others.” That would require a different study using many samples from each of many restaurants.

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 don’t get an accurate count. That’s 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, there’s no guarantee that it’s 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

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