A few years ago, when I heard that food chains were going to have to display the calorie content here in New York City, I was like, "Yeah, right. Like I am really going to believe what they tell me." I saw the resistance that some companies put up when the law was proposed—they were afraid that if people saw how many calories they were really consuming with a combo meal or exotic berry smoothie, they would rethink their food choices and eat somewhere else.
Or gasp, cook at home.
So knowing this, I didn't want to fall for the okedoke. And as more and more places around the country have adopted these policies, we all could be deeply impacted if their math is off. Luckily, researchers from Tufts University in Boston decided to check out for themselves if the calories being advertised in popular food chains were accurate.
After ordering from 42 restaurants, including Pizza Hut, Boston Market, Olive Garden and Outback Steakhouse and analyzing 269 different food items from appetizers to desserts, researchers found that for the most part, the foods were inaccurate, most by 10 calories, and out of the 269 food items, 141 actually had fewer calories than stated.
Not too bad. Overestimating seems somewhat safe. But before we celebrate with a supersized chocolate malt, here comes the bad news.
But when calorie counts were off, they could be way off. Nearly 1 in 5 of the foods contained 100 or more calories than stated. In some cases, the discrepancies were "huge," Tufts researcher Lorien Urban tells Shots. For example, a blue cheese wedge side salad at Outback Steakhouse was 659 calories richer than the menu noted. And a side order of chips and salsa at On the Border Mexican Grill and Cantina was too low by a whopping 1,081 calories.
Among the many provisions of the big federal law overhauling health care was a requirement that the Food and Drug Administration develop regulations for menu labeling at restaurant chains with 20 or more locations. The idea is that the info will help curb the obesity epidemic, which now affects one in three Americans.
But as Shots has reported, the counts may not affect consumer behavior much. And Urban worries that without clear guidelines for accuracy, the calorie labeling won't be useful at all.
Researchers also found that calories were more likely to be completely underestimated at sit-down restaurants as opposed to fast food joints and that desserts usually had more calories than stated.
So what's the problem?
First, those calories can add up. NPR wrote that 100 extra calories a day every day may result in 15 extra pounds at the end of the year if you live a mostly sedentary life. And the impact that extra weight and obesity has on our community is clear: Disproportionate rates of heart disease, diabetes, strokes and cancers.
Something that African-American physician and author of Reclaiming Our Health: A Guide to African-American Wellness, Michelle Gourdine, said in a New York Times piece about the importance of calorie counts being accurate really struck me. She wrote:
[While] it is important to remember that although our health choices are largely responsible for our health, we don’t make choices in a vacuum. Choice is influenced by many factors, including knowledge, accessibility and affordability. In other words, it’s easier to eat better if you know better, are motivated to do better, can afford better and can easily access better. Studies have shown that largely Black and Latino communities have more fast food restaurants and fewer grocery stores or fresh food markets per square mile. It is no coincidence that serious health conditions are more prevalent among people living in these “food deserts” that limit food choice and facilitate the overconsumption of high calorie foods. Providing accurate calorie counts in these communities where options are limited helps make the healthier choice the easier choice.
Clearly, more health literacy and access is needed to be healthier, but it would be nice for the information out there to be correct. We deserve the truth, because our lives depend on it.
(Photo: Kansas City Star/MCT/Landov)