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Calories Underestimated in 40 Percent of Menu Items, Study Finds

Calories are listed next to menu items in a McDonald's restaurant in New York City.  Photographer: Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Calories are listed next to menu items in a McDonald's restaurant in New York City. Photographer: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

July 19 (Bloomberg) -- About 40 percent of food items on restaurant menus contained at least 10 more calories than stated, according to research that suggests dieters may be misled about their food choices while dining out.

Restaurants understated their food’s energy content by more than 100 calories for 19 percent of menu items, according to the study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association. One hundred extra calories a day adds up to about 10 to 15 pounds (4.5 to 6.8 kilograms) of weight gain a year, said study author Susan Roberts, a nutrition scientist at Tufts University in Boston.

A provision of the 2010 U.S. health-care law requires restaurants with more than 20 locations to list calorie counts for items they serve. Accurate counts help people make smarter food choices, Roberts said. Today’s study is the first to analyze whether the calories listed by restaurants are accurate, she said.

“It’s shocking,” said Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, in a July 15 telephone interview. “Restaurants should be doing more to help. We eat something like one third of our daily calories at restaurants. If we can’t rely on those numbers, you’re definitely going to struggle with your weight more.”

Researchers compared menu calories with laboratory measurements of calories in 269 food items purchased as takeout from national fast food restaurants and sit-down chain restaurants in Indianapolis, Boston and Little Rock, Arkansas. They found that only 7 percent of the foods tested had calories within 10 calories of what the restaurant stated, Roberts said.

Salad Calories Overestimated

The study found that restaurants overestimated calorie content of foods by at least 10 calories for 52 percent of foods on their menus. Lower calorie foods like salads and soups were more likely to have higher calories on the plate than what was listed by the restaurant.

Restaurant chain On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina’s enchiladas suizas dinner portion -- three enchiladas made with chicken, cheese and cream sauce -- was about 490 calories less in laboratory tests, while the chips and salsa contained about 1,000 calories more, the study showed. On The Border is owned by OTB Acquisition LLC, an affiliate of San Francisco-based Golden Gate Capital Corp.

Outback Steakhouse’s classic blue cheese wedge side salad had more than 650 extra calories in laboratory tests, while the Outback Special six ounce steak was more than 100 calories less in laboratory tests. Outback is owned by Tampa, Florida-based OSI Restaurant Partners LLC.

‘Overall Accurate’

“The research published today shows that on average, the stated calorie content for restaurant food is accurate,” said Joe Kadow, an executive vice president for OSI Restaurant Partners, in an e-mail today. In the case of the blue cheese wedge salad, researchers may have tested the entrée size rather than the side salad size, he said.

“We’re pleased the research showed on average that the stated calorie count is accurate,” said Joy Dubost, director of Nutrition and Healthy Living for the National Restaurant Association, a trade group in Washington, in a telephone interview today. “In time, we’ll see the variance will narrow.”

Many restaurants are looking to tighten their quality control standards by weighing food or analyzing the package sizes for takeout to make sure they reflect what would go out on a plate for diners eating in a restaurant, she said.

Sit-Down Dining Discrepancies

Roberts said the discrepancies, seen more often in sit-down restaurants than fast-food chains, could be because the kitchen staff is sending out bigger sized portions to diners than they should.

“I want to expose this problem and have everyone say this is a problem, let’s fix it,” Roberts said. “America is really suffering from obesity. This is one place where we can really make a difference.”

Linda Van Horn, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, who also wrote an accompanying editorial in the journal, said today’s study puts a spotlight on accuracy in labeling so people can make informed choices about their food intake.

“Just as balancing a budget can prevent debt, balancing caloric intake with output can prevent added pounds,” she wrote in the editorial. “However, U.S. residents seem to be struggling with both balancing acts. New, innovative and effective approaches to teaching about energy balance and calorie control are greatly needed.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Ostrow in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at

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