A new study from Tufts University in Boston shows it might be hard to know exactly what you’re eating, because calorie labelling at chain restaurants can be deceptive.
Across dozens of restaurants in three states, researchers found the stated calorie counts were accurate on average, but less so for individual food items.
There was a huge spread in the numbers, which means you really don't know what you are getting. All told, only seven percent of the French fries, burgers and other food items the team sampled were within 10 calories from the stated values.
The new study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is the first large study to test how reliable existing menus are. The research team visited 42 quick-serve and sit-down restaurants in Massachusetts, Arkansas and Indiana, and ordered take-out for 269 different food items.
In lab tests, they found 40 percent of the foods contained at least 10 calories more than stated, while 52 percent had at least 10 calories fewer.
And nearly one in five items packed 100 or more excess calories -- a finding that was most pronounced for lower-calorie foods. That's a problem, the researchers said, because downing 100 calories more than you need every day will lead to weight gains of between 11 and 33 pounds over a year.
Sit-down restaurants were the main culprit behind the extra calories, mainly because portion sizes varied quite a bit.
Even if menus were 100 percent accurate, there is no ironclad proof that calorie labelling works as intended, and researchers remain divided on the issue.
In February 2011, a New York study found menu labelling at McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken had made no dent in children’s’ appetites for high calorie fare.
Some experts argue that most studies show menu labelling does work, particularly when it includes information on how many daily calories a person should eat to maintain a healthy weight. People need to know that 2,000 calories is all an average person needs a day; putting that on the label has been shown to be effective.
The researchers advice to weight-conscious consumers? Order foods you have more control over, like salads with the dressing or the cheese on the side.
All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.