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Testing shows some food menus incorrectly label calories

How accurate are menu calorie counts?
Posted at 11:08 AM, Apr 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-23 11:56:18-04

In May, most chain restaurants will have to post calories on their menus. Some restaurants already do adhere to the new federal requirement. But just how accurate are these calorie counts? 

People like Jodi Rogers, a realtor who tries to eat healthy and exercise a few times a week, says she doesn't count every calorie but she finds calorie listings helpful when ordering. She admits sometimes she feels bombarded by all the numbers. "I see them pretty much everywhere I go, I feel like," she said. "I think it gives you a little bit of guidance as to what you're looking at and what you might actually be consuming."

The test included calorie counts on three items from three national chains. The test included two club sandwiches with fries from Denny's. The menu said there would be 1100 calories in each order. McDonald's promised 540 calories for its signature Big Mac. The test included two sandwiches and no sides. The test also included two Steak and White Cheddar Paninis from Panera. Each should have 940 calories.

The food was taken by The Now to a lab for testing. The technician ground up and scientifically analyzed the food to find out how many calories were in each. The results showed that the menus can sometimes be inaccurate.

At McDonald's, the 540-calorie sandwiches came out just slightly higher at 581 calories and 552 calories. That's not much of difference, said dietitian Jessica Crandall. "If the recipe calls for a teaspoon of mayo put on a sandwich, maybe when the person in the line who is making the sandwich uses a tablespoon instead," said Crandall.

At Panera, the food didn't come in over; it was exactly the opposite. The sandwiches were expected to have 940 calories but measured in with 149 fewer calories and 205 fewer calories.

At Denny's the sandwich and fries should have been 1100 but both were over, one by 180 calories and the other by 110.

Crandall said, "It's an extra two or three hundred calories. If someone is trying to lose weight that can actually hold their weight loss."

Think of it this way: Jodi would have to work out for an extra 18 minutes just to burn those extra 180 calories.

No one regulates whether menus are accurate. The FDA says restaurants must explain how they came up with the calorie results only if the FDA asks. The FDA says the requirement to list calorie counts on menus "applies to restaurants and similar retail food establishments if they are part of a chain of 20 or more locations, doing business under the same name, offering for sale substantially the same menu items and offering for sale restaurant-type foods."

Jodi says she doesn't expect every restaurant to be perfect and she still plans to use calories listed on the menu for some general guidance and will keep exercising. 

"I think you have to give yourself a little bit of wiggle room and realize that whoever's preparing the food probably isn't getting exactly the same serving size and it might not be exact same food as what was provided in their test kitchen," she said.