Restaurant Calorie Listings: Are They Accurate?
You may have noticed more calorie counts listed when you eat out lately. Whether a sit-down restaurant has its own nutritional information booklet or a drive-thru lists calories next to combo meals, this newly available information is the result of a new federal law. Passed last year as part of health care legislation, restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets are now required to disclose calorie counts on their menus. While some states like California and Oregon have already enacted the measure, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to roll out national guidelines for 2012. The goal is to help consumers to make better informed decisions about what they eat and hopefully impact the obesity epidemic. Researchers have studied the effects of nutritional information on restaurant menus and their results give a mixed view of the usefulness of the information itself and its impact on consumer choice.
According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans spend about half of their food budget on eating out, so tracking calories at restaurants is an important aspect of watching what you eat. However, a Tufts University study found about 19% of the 269 restaurant food items they tested had inaccurate calorie information. 50 dishes’ calories were understated by at least 100 calories. Those items happened to be foods that were listed as lower calorie items, such as salads and soups. Specifically, Chipotle’s burrito bowl packed 249 more calories than listed on their website, while Olive Garden’s Chicken and Gnocchi Soup had 246 more. Both chains point to dishes being handmade for the discrepancies, a fact that calls for better quality control in restaurants’ kitchens.
Not on the Nutrition Menu
Items that may be harder to control and are not listed on the nutritional information menu are added oils, butter, sauces, and salad dressings. Adding too much of these could be the sole reason for discrepant calorie counts. Another thing to look out for are entrées with side items. The nutritional values of those will likely only list the main dish, while, a side of bread for example, will be listed separately. More often than not, try to avoid fried, sautéed, marinated, breaded and batter-dipped items. Also, ask for sauces and salad dressings on the side, and if possible request that oils and butter not be used in preparation. Ask for spinach and other vegetables steamed instead of cooked on the grill where many cooks add oil or butter. Some grilled sandwiches and burritos are also brushed with butter or oil.
Can I Get Half?
Cheesecake Factory recently introduced an alternative to their traditional menu with entrées under 590 calories and desserts under 490. But not all restaurants need an extra menu for consumers to save on calories. Many offer lunch-sized portions which are markedly smaller than dinner portions. Other restaurants offer medium or large desserts coupled with half or full orders of their offerings. Another way to cut calories at sit down restaurants is to set your own boundaries. Keep bottomless items to a single serving. For instance, according to the Tufts study, an order of chips and salsa from On the Border had more than 1,000 calories than its listed amount. Multiple baskets of bread will also cost you. Outback Steakhouse doesn’t list the calorie count of their honey wheat bread with the nutritional information on their website, but it runs over 200 calories per serving.
The Impact of Calorie Listings
Will restaurant menu calorie counts help solve the obesity epidemic? It can’t hurt. While larger-scale studies are needed, smaller studies have found only a moderate change in caloric intake after calorie counts were published. A Stanford University study found Starbucks’ customers in New York dropped 6% of their calories after policies required the information on menus. Margo Wootan, Director of Nutrition Policy for the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest says this is significant. She tells the Los Angeles Times, "The obesity epidemic is probably explained by about 100 calories per person per day." When added or taken away from the average Americans’ diet, that's about 10 to 15 pounds a year.
Does nutrition information on menus affect your decision of what to order? How do you make healthy choices when dining out?