January 20, 2010

Tipping the Scales

Restaurant foods and frozen meals contain more calories than they claim, study finds

“If people use published calorie contents for weight control, discrepancies of this magnitude could result in weight gain of many pounds a year,” says Susan B. Roberts. Photo: iStock

Even as a growing number of fast-food and chain restaurants display the calorie contents of their dishes on websites and menus, eaters should exercise caution. Those meals often contain substantially more calories than advertised, according to a Tufts study.

Researchers analyzed the calorie content of 18 side dishes and entrees from national sit-down chain restaurants, 11 side dishes and entrees from national fast-food restaurants and 10 frozen meals purchased from supermarkets. They compared their results to the calorie content information provided to the public by the restaurants and food companies.

On average, the researchers found the dishes contained 18 percent more calories than claimed by the restaurants. Two side dishes exceeded the restaurants’ reported calorie information by nearly 200 percent. The researchers also found that frozen meals had on average 8 percent more calories than listed.

“If people use published calorie contents for weight control, discrepancies of this magnitude could result in weight gain of many pounds a year,” says senior author Susan B. Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts.

More studies are needed to determine the extent of calorie miscounting. “Because we analyzed a relatively small sample of food, additional research testing more foods will be needed to see if this is a nationwide problem,” says Roberts, who is also a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

The researchers tested frozen foods straight out of their packages and restaurant foods based on the actual portions served. “When we went one step further and calculated calorie content based on the portion size listed on the restaurant’s nutrition literature, the discrepancies between our results and the restaurant’s results decreased, which suggests oversized portions were part of the problem,” says Roberts.

Five of the restaurants offered free side dishes, which were not factored into the calorie information provided for the entrées. The researchers noted that on average, the side dishes contained more calories than the entrées they accompanied.

“Restaurant menus and websites should be as clear as possible,” Roberts says. “For example, listing the calorie contents of free side dishes on separate pages from entrees may mislead customers about how much they are eating and may prevent them from making informed decisions between different side dish choices.”

The findings also raise a red flag about recent municipal initiatives requiring restaurants to publicize nutrition information. “If the goals of these policies are to encourage a healthier society and weight loss, inaccurate calorie content information could well hamper these efforts,” Roberts says.

Writing in the January issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the study authors attribute the smaller 8 percent discrepancy between their results and the calorie content information from the frozen food companies to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight of nutrition fact information labels. Current FDA rules are more lenient toward underreporting calories than over-reporting them.

In addition to Roberts, the researchers on the study were Lorien E. Urban, N09; Gerard E. Dallal, a senior scientist at the HNRCA; Lisa M. Robinson, a nutritionist in the Energy Metabolism Lab; Lynne M. Ausman, a Friedman School professor; and Edward Saltzman, a scientist in the Energy Metabolism Lab.

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