Since 2010, restaurants with more than 20 locations have been required to include calorie data on their menus. While this is a good idea in principle, just how useful is that information? According to research by Elizabeth Gross Cohn from the Columbia University School of Nursing and her colleagues, not very useful at all.
The researchers asked volunteers to document what kind of calorie information fast food restaurants throughout Harlem, New York were posting on their menu boards. Many of the restaurants presented a range of calories, depending on how the item was prepared and how many people it was meant to serve. Unfortunately, in most cases, that range was not particularly informative. For example, the menu board at one chicken restaurant stated that their six-piece meal had 1200 to 4250 calories. I assume the higher number is if you ate the entire meal yourself, but how much can you eat to hit the bottom number? 1.7 pieces? By the same token, calorie ranges given for items with a choice of toppings or side dishes usually didn’t specify which calorie count matched which menu choice, so there was no way to know how many calories a finished item would actually have.
In addition, none of the restaurants offered any information about suggested daily caloric intake. In other words, although customers can get information about calorie counts for food items, that information is not put into any meaningful context.
The authors suggest that more effort be made to let consumers know how much their choice of toppings and preparation will affect the final calorie count of their selection. The FDA is also looking for ways to improve nutritional reporting.