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Right There on the Label? Wrong.

Posted by bmagnus On January - 8 - 2010

The fact that many restaurants and fast food places now have nutritional information easily available has been wonderful for people who are trying to eat right. Reading this information — like consulting the nutrition panel of prepared food at the grocery store — helps people choose foods that are more nutritious, control the number of calories they are eating, and  keep track of things like fat, sugar, and sodium intake. The problem is that you can’t believe everything you read.

A research team from Tufts University set out to find out just how accurate that information is, and the results are shocking. They looked at 18 meals from sit-down chain restaurants, 11 items from fast food places, and 10 frozen supermarket entrees and compared the results to the “official” nutrition info. All these items were “typical American foods” and supposed to be under 500 calories — the type of item someone on a weight loss diet might order. They admit that more research will be needed to see if this is true nationwide, but here’s what they found:

  • Restaurant food had on average 18% more calories than reported
  • Two items had calorie counts almost 200% more than reported
  • Side dishes often had more calories than the entrees they accompanied
  • Some restaurant entrees came with free side dishes that had on average 471 calories — a remarkable addition to what was supposed to be a sub-500 calorie meal
  • Prepackaged food had 8% more calories than reported

While the FDA allows calorie contents to be up to 20% higher than reported, they do not allow it to be less than 99% of reported. It would seem logical to be a little over rather than risk the FDA’s wrath. This does not explain what they found about restaurant food.

It is obvious to the researchers and to us that this has a huge impact on anyone counting calories. Lead researcher Susan B. Roberts said “[P]ositive energy balance of only 5% per day for an individual requiring 2,000 kcal/day could lead to a 10-lb weight gain in a single year. If widespread, this phenomenon could hamper efforts to self-monitor energy intake to control weight…”

Go ahead and keep reading nutritional information. Just remember that those are minimum values and they don’t reflect any “bonus” food that may end up on your plate.

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