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Calorie counts found lacking

Soups, salads often more fattening than listed, Tufts researchers say

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By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / July 20, 2011

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Posted calorie counts in chain restaurants are often inaccurate, and weight-conscious consumers who select soups and salads are especially likely to be served heftier dishes than advertised, according to a new study from Boston researchers.

Their analysis of a wide assortment of items from 42 national fast-food and sit-down restaurant chains found that nearly 1 in 5 samples, when measured in a laboratory, were at least 100 calories over the amounts listed on the restaurants’ websites.

The team also identified many items that contained fewer calories than advertised. Restaurants tended to overstate the amounts in higher-calorie foods such as pizza, meats, and side dishes, but lower-calorie foods, such as soups and salads, were among the most likely to have understated calorie listings, the researchers reported yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

On average, restaurants’ websites were about as likely to understate calories as to overstate them, according to the study by scientists at the Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.

But the wide variability among many of the samples is troubling, said the study’s lead author, Susan B. Roberts, director of the energy metabolism laboratory at Tufts, given the growing numbers of consumers who regularly eat out and the legions who are struggling with their weight. More than half of the nation’s adults are overweight or obese.

“This turns dieting on its head,’’ Roberts said, “especially if you go to a restaurant and think you’re being good by ordering a soup or salad.’’

While 100 extra calories lurking in a salad may not seem alarming, a consumer who ate that additional amount each day would pack on, on average, 10 pounds a year, she said.

Roberts said the scientists do not know why lower-calorie foods, especially salads, tended to exceed the posted calories, but said it could be that workers preparing the items may have used more dressings and cheese than intended.

Roberts’s team randomly selected 269 items from 42 restaurants in three states - Massachusetts, Arkansas, and Indiana - between January and June 2010.

The National Restaurant Association, a trade group that represents nearly 1 million restaurant and food service outlets, said it was pleased the study showed that, on average, calorie counts were on target.

But spokeswoman Joy Dubost said that restaurants, particularly sit-down restaurants, will be working harder to ensure that meals prepared by kitchen staff more closely adhere to posted calorie counts.

Driving that effort is the federal health care overhaul bill, passed last year, which will require restaurants with more than 20 locations to post that information on menus and menu boards. Final regulations are expected to be issued later this year, with a start-up date probably next summer.

“We have to keep in mind that restaurant food is hand-prepared and it invariably contains variation,’’ Dubost said. “But with the new menu-labeling law we know that many restaurant chains are looking to tighten up kitchen quality-control standards.’’

The federal Affordable Care Act does not include any provisions to ensure that what is served does adhere to posted calorie counts, said Linda Van Horn, a research nutritionist and professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

“Labeling is a wonderful thing, Van Horn said, “but periodically, there should be some external monitoring so restaurants would need to know they should be conscious of any changes that take place.’’

In the study, scientists ordered the items as take-out - including soups and salads, meats, side dishes, sandwiches, pizzas, and desserts - and analyzed them in a lab. They found significantly larger discrepancies between advertised and actual calorie counts in sit-down restaurants, compared with fast-food chains.

“Fast-food restaurants are always considered the bad guys, but, in this case, they were the good guys, if you want a reliable calorie count, because there is more control in the factory’’ where the food is prepared, Roberts said.

Many of the restaurants tested had some food items that contained fewer calories than were posted, as well as offerings that exceeded the amount, including Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse. At Olive Garden, for instance, two of the soups - zuppa Toscana and chicken and gnocchi - were at least 200 calories over the posted amount. Yet the steak gorgonzola alfredo came in 238 calories under.

“The nutritional information we provide to our guests is based on preparing each one of our menu items multiple times and having them tested by a professional third-party laboratory that specializes in nutritional analysis,’’ Mike Bernstein, a spokesman for Olive Garden and LongHorn, said in an e-mailed statement.

“We are confident that the results are as accurate as they can be for dishes that are individually crafted by hand,’’ he said.

At Boston-based Uno Chicago Grill, eight of nine items tested, including Buffalo chicken deep dish pizza, contained fewer calories than posted, with steamed seasonal vegetables being the only offering that came in over, by 68 calories.

“We consider this to be a single incident, though we will reemphasize to our chefs the importance of ensuring accuracy,’’ Rick Hendrie, Uno’s marketing senior vice president, said in an e-mailed statement.

The most glaring discrepancy found was for the chips and salsa at On the Border Mexican Grill and Cantina. That measured more than 1,000 calories over the advertised amount. On the Border did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.

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