Tufts University Study Finds Calorie Counts on Many Menus Aren't Accurate

By Brian Montgomery

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) conducted by the Energy Metabolism Laboratory of the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center at Tufts University found that many so-called low calorie options on popular restaurants' menus often under-represent calorie counts on average by 100 calories. Unfortunately you have to subscribe to the JAMA to read the full study, but the article Are Calorie Counts on Menus Accurate? Not So Much in Time does a great job of highlighting the relevant findings.

Pairing Food With Beer

In short, the researchers' data came from 269 food items at 42 different fast food and sit-down restaurant chains including McDonald's, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, and Boston Market, ordered from 3 different cities and analyzed in the lab. Most of the items studied only had about 10 more calories than what the menus claimed, but here is where the findings get interesting:

  • 19% of the foods studied understated their calorie counts by 100 calories or more. Of these items all were described as a "low calorie" option on the menus!
  • Fast food chains, who often bear the brunt of criticism for contributing to America's obesity problem were actually more accurate with their calorie counts than sit-down restaurants!

So what should you, as a chef or restaurant owner take from all of this? Why were the fast food restaurants more accurate than many of the sit-down places with their reporting? Most likely because most chains have very strict portion size guidelines and cooking procedures, compared to an independent or sit down restaurant. Chefs at those types of establishments might not always be using the exact same cut of meat every time, or have the ingredients precisely pre-portioned the way fast food chains do.

So emphasizing portion control and consistency in preparation techniques at your restaurant is really a win-win. You'll save money by not wasting as much of your ingredients, and you'll be doing your more health-conscious customers a favor too by truly providing them with the healthy option they chose.

Then again, should restaurants shoulder all the responsibility in this situation? Yes, if you're going to list calories (many states and cities are either considering requiring it or already do), it should be accurate. And the fact that the biggest errors were in the "healthy" options is inexcusable, in my opinion. But it's still the customers' choice to go out to eat and make their own decision on what to order, so I don't think it's fair to exempt the consumer from any responsibility.

As a restaurant owner, chef, or customer, what do you think? Do you list nutrition information on your menu, and if so, have you noticed any effect on your customers' choices? Let us know by posting a comment!

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