Study Finds Inaccurate Calorie Counts on Restaurant Menus

Restaurant Foods - Understated calorie counts on menus for so-called low calorie foodsA new study that measured the accuracy of calorie counts stated on restaurant menus from about 40 fast-food and sit-down restaurants in 3 states has found overall accuracy but substantial inaccuracy for some foods. In particular, the researchers found that menus, especially in sit-down restaurants, substantially understated the calorie content of several foods that were advertised as being “low calorie.”

As a result, dieters who eat in restaurants may be consuming more calories than they believe based on the menus — making dieting even more difficult at a time when our increasing national obesity rates are termed an epidemic.

The new study, conducted by Lorien E. Urban, Ph.D., of Tufts University, Boston, and colleagues, was published in the July 19, 2011 online issue of JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association. The study was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Reducing energy intake by self-monitoring or selecting foods with lower energy contents is widely recommended for the prevention and treatment of obesity,” the authors wrote in an introduction to the study report. “However, the feasibility of reducing energy intake using these approaches depends in part on the availability of accurate information on the energy contents of different foods,” they stated. “Foods purchased in restaurants provide approximately 35 percent of the daily energy intake in U.S. individuals but the accuracy of the energy contents listed for these foods is unknown,” they wrote.


In order to evaluate the overall accuracy of energy contents (calories) stated in menus, the researchers ordered food as a take-out meal from 42 restaurants, including 269 total food items and 242 unique foods. They then analyzed the food at a laboratory for caloric content.

The restaurants and foods were selected randomly from both fast food and sit-down restaurants in Massachusetts, Arkansas, and Indiana, between January and June of 2010.


Of the 269 food items, 108 (40 percent) had measured energy contents at least 10 kcal (calories) per portion higher than the energy contents stated on the menu. Another 141 (52 percent) of the food items had measured energy contents at least 10 calories per portion lower than the stated energy contents. Nineteen percent of the foods contained calorie content more than 100 calories per portion in excess of the calorie content stated on the menu.

In an analysis of 10 percent of the foods from both quick-serve and sit-down restaurants with the highest discrepancy between measured and stated calories, these foods had an average difference between measured and stated energy contents of 289 calories per portion. A similar discrepancy appeared in a re-analysis of 13 of these foods (showing an average discrepancy of 258 calories per portion). “Considering the first and second sampling of the 13 foods together, the 26 foods had a mean [average] measured energy content of 273 kcal/portion higher than the stated energy content, representing a 48 percent discrepancy,” the researchers found.

“In addition, foods with lower stated energy contents contained higher measured energy contents than stated, while foods with higher stated energy contents contained lower measured energy contents,” they reported.

The researchers also found significantly greater variability in the discrepancy between the stated and measured energy contents in all foods from sit-down restaurants, compared to all foods from quick-serve or fast food restaurants.

The authors wrote:

There was also significantly greater variability in the discrepancy between the stated and measured energy contents in all foods from sit-down restaurants compared with all foods from quick-serve restaurants (SD of 225 kcal/portion vs SD of 134 kcal/portion, respectively; P<.001) and also for entrees only from sit-down restaurants compared with all foods from quick-serve restaurants (SD of 214 kcal/portion vs SD of 134 kcal/ portion, respectively; P=.02). Side dishes from sit-down restaurants contained higher measured energy contents than stated compared with the entrees they accompanied (58 kcal/portion [95% CI, 13 to 102 kcal/portion] vs −48 kcal/ portion [95% CI, −94 to −1 kcal/ portion], respectively; P=.03) and were significantly more variable relative to measured energy contents (P<.001)."

The authors suggest that a reason why individual foods have inaccurate stated energy contents (especially in sit-down restaurants) may be poor quality control of portion size.


“The results of this study have implications for pending implementation of new legislation requiring more restaurants to document the energy content of their menu items,” the authors wrote. “Although our study showed that stated energy contents in restaurants are relatively accurate on average, thus supporting greater availability of this information, projected benefits for preventing weight gain and facilitating weight loss are likely to be reduced if restaurant foods with lower stated energy contents provide more energy content than stated. Additional portion control in restaurants has the potential to facilitate individual efforts to reduce energy intake and to help resolve the national obesity epidemic.”

More Information

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued proposed rules on April 1, 2011 pursuant to the Menu Education and Labeling Act, which was adopted as part of the Affordable Care Act, requiring the posting of calorie information on menus of certain chain restaurants and regarding food sold in vending machines. As reported in the May 11, 2011 issue of JAMA, the proposed rules have been criticized by some as not going far enough.

The full study report of the new study, Accuracy of Stated Energy Contents of Restaurant Foods, is available in the July 19, 2011 issue of JAMA.

See also a Video produced by JAMA about this study »

For more information about diet and nutrition, see HelpingYouCare™’s section on Wellness/ Healthy Living for Seniors & Caregivers > Diet & Nutrition: Physical Wellness.


Copyright © 2011 Care-Help LLC


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