Science-- there's something for everyone

Sunday, August 5, 2012

How good are restaurant calorie listings?

If you’ve been carefully checking the calorie contents of the items you eat in restaurants and still can’t lose weight, there may be a reason. According to Lorien Urban and her colleagues from Tufts University, many of the calorie listings are inaccurate. As half of Americans regularly eat out every week, those calories add up.

The researchers collected 269 menu items from 42 restaurant chains around Boston, Massachusetts, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Lafayette, Indiana. All foods were ordered ‘to go’ for processing. Restaurants were not informed that their offerings were soon to be frozen on dry ice and shipped to a lab where they were blended and freeze-dried into powder and then burned in calorimeters.

How did the restaurants do? There was good news and bad news. The good news was that most of the menu items were off by no more than ten calories. The bad news is that almost 20% of the items were off by over a hundred calories. This was particularly problematic for side dishes at sit-down restaurants. In fact, items from sit-down restaurants tended to be less accurate than items from fast-food places, possibly because fast-food offerings are much more automated. If so, this inclines me to give sit-down restaurants a pass. After all, you can’t expect a chef to hand prepare every meal with the exact number of calories stated on the menu. The fact that most items were within 10 calories of the correct number seems pretty good to me.

That said, if you’re basing your diet on the exact number of calories you consume, you probably shouldn’t eat at restaurants. I’ve written before about how restaurants don’t do a good job informing people about how toppings and portion sizes affect the final calorie count of an item. Even if you eliminate those variables, I don’t think the listed calorie counts can ever be 100% accurate.