Saturday, February 18, 2012

Restaurant "light"? Not so much...

Increasingly, Nutrition has become a major topic of debate, becoming predominant as more science and information are brought to light and the implications and consequences of our lifestyles are becoming evident. Eating healthy seems to be the trend, and companies want to attach themselves to that image to capitalize as much as they can. Besides clearer and more easily defined nutrition label laws, a new trend which has emerged is the growing number of establishments and restaurants that are now including and revealing their nutrition labels in order to allow consumers to make informed decisions. Catering to this crowd, most have created special "light" and "healthy" menu options to entice customers to order their food. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, it is still far from perfect. Infrequent monitoring, an overzealous chef, or blatant misuse are still issues that will take time to sort out. Portion sizes are usually larger than stated and there is no fail proof "check" mechanism in place in the restaurant industry.

The USDA as well as various organizations and universities have started to monitor health and nutrition claims, often doing random testing and analysis at a food lab. Many studies have been done in the past 2 years.While most were within 10% of the claims, many were grossly inaccurate.  Researchers picked food, all with nutritional information available (either on the package or on the web), that was labelled as low calorie (<500 kcal).The researchers picked the lowest calorie meals on the menu at the restaurants on purpose. Here are a few of the results:

On the Border: chips and salsa

Stated label: 430 calories and 22 grams of fat
Actual lab results: 1452 kcal

Error: 237%!!

FYI, their Border Sampler is a whopping 2060 calories and 142 g fat.

Outback Steakhouse: classic blue cheese wedge salad (side):
Stated nutritional information: 419 calories and 37g of fat
Actual lab results: 1025 calories
Error: 144% more calories

Hungry Howie's: Pizza Sub
1/2 sub: 606 calories 24.2g of fat; whole sub 1212 calories and 48.4g fat
Actual lab results: 1728 calories
Error: 1.42x more calorie dense, or 42.5%

Also, be very careful with misleading labelling. For example, looking at their salad information:

Large Garden4 per sld.170.30092.91.51
Large Greek4 per sld.1096.74.3255017.11.85.6
Large Chef4 per sld.9963243413.61.68.1
Large Antipasto4 per sld.1016.73.4244772.81.47.8
Small Garden2 per sld.200.200103.41.71.1
Small Greek2 per sld.1267.45295818.22.16.5
Small Chef2 per sld.1146.73.5283964.21.99.4

Notice how they label the servings differently for the large vs. small sized salads. The Greek salad stood out quite a bit. The Large salad only has 109 kcal where as the small Greek has 126kcal. This is meant to mislead you, since the large Greek Salad has FOUR servings per order, whereas the small only has 2. So in actuality, the regular sized Greek (large- who eats a small?!) is 436kcal. This isn't so bad, and I would appreciate it if they list it as an entire serving size. Who orders a whole salad, and then only eats 1/4th of it?

Don Pablos: Chili Chicken Rellenos
Their nutrition label:  686 kcal for 2.
Lab results: 1018 kcal
Error: 332calories. 48% deviation.

Bob Evan's: Cranberry Chicken Pecan Salad (no dressing)
Cranberry Pecan Chicken Salad
Their nutrition information: 618 kcal
Actual Lab results: 1274 kcal
Error: 115%
One only shudders to think what the total would have been with the dressing included. The Colonial dressing is 433kcal per small serving! The French dressing is 395kcal per small 3oz serving.
Ask for salsa and mustard instead.

DENNY'S: Toast and Grits
Their nutritional information- Dry white toast 97 calories, Grits 86 calories.
Actual lab results: Toast- 283 calories per slice .Grits served with butter -258 calories instead of the reported 86.
Error: 191% more for the toast (most likely due to added butter); Grits: 200%!!

 Splurging once in awhile and enjoying your meal is part of a healthy lifestyle. However, I don't like it when companies mislead and lie on their nutrition labels.

 When customers are consciously trying to make better decisions by purposely ordering healthy-menu items, when in fact they are are not what they state they are, then this is cause for concern and perhaps a re-evaluation at the way the USDA and FDA handle this issue (there is no current guideline for restaurants, while packaged foods are allowed a 20% discrepancy margin).
Federal regulations are strict about the accuracy of the net weight of a package of prepared food, which must be at least 99% of the advertised weight. When it comes to calories, the count can be a far bigger 20% off. The Federal Government plays no role in checking the calorie claims in restaurants, which means it's up to the states to handle the job — with the predictable patchwork results. 
(Read more:,8599,1951798,00.html#ixzz1mgBG1OVG)

When taking into consideration the fact that various chefs are making these meals and they are all handmade, it is understandable to account for these variances. They are not prepackaged, weighed items. A slip of the hand or a generous pour of oil vary from chef to chef. I can be fairly certain that the chef is not going to take the time to weigh out 3oz of the salad dressing. These things are so easy to underestimate.  “Since our food is handmade, there can be variance in calorie counts,” he said. “One sandwich may have more mustard or mayonnaise, the next may have no lettuce or tomato.” Being mindful is the best strategy, as it is with all things in life.

"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 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.

For the full article, please click here:

Luckily, as noted in the study and article, most of the restaurants only varied by 10 calories, and were general fairly accurate. The biggest misrepresentation tended to be on the "LOW Calorie Healthy" options. It is also important to note that several of the tested items were actually lower in calories then they claimed.
  If it sounds too good to be true.....
(see study here:

"On average, the food items measured ten calories higher than the restaurants' stated calories. That's essentially accurate. However, 19% of food items contained at least 100 calories more than listed, which suggests calories for individual foods can be unreliable. One item contained 1000 calories more than listed," senior author Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging revealed.
The study results showed that lower calorie food items at sit-down restaurants tended to have more calories than listed. Additionally, items often viewed as healthier from both sit-down and fast food restaurants, like salads and soups, tended to have more unreliable caloric listings.
"We were pleased to see that average calories listings are accurate," Roberts said. "but we think it is very important that lower calorie foods not contain more calories than listed because such foods are purchased by people trying to control their weight. They will find that harder to do so if they are eating more than they think."
In sit-down restaurants, foods that were labeled as low calorie almost consistently contained more energy than was stated, while those shown to be high in calories actually had fewer than reported.
"Typically, the foods that were stated as low calorie on the menu contained more calories than they should, which is really bad for dieters," Roberts said in the JAMA report.(source:

Asking for dressing on the side is one method for those who are wary of nutrition claims and trying to reduce calories--or just bring your own (Walden Farm's calorie/fat free Individual packets are fantastic, as are their bottled dressings. Most people really enjoy their Italian).

 You can also politely ask that the chef is careful with keeping it as light as possible.
 Remember to always read the ingredients. Always use the nutrition information as a guide-- never as an absolute; the same goes for all packaged foods. The difference between a tsp of oil versus a tablespoon is very fine in the hands of someone who is rushing and free-pouring: a tablespoon has roughly 121 kcal and 14 g of fat, a teaspoon has 40 kcal and 4.5 g of fat.

As for packaged foods, read the label. Remember a gram of protein and carbohydrate each have 4 calories per gram, and fat has 9 calories/gram. Do the math! If a product has 20g carbs, 5g protein, and 1g of fat, then there is no way it is under 100 calories (should be at least 109). For info on calorie counts, click here or for an previous article I wrote about this study and some interesting FDA nutrition labeling guidelines, click here.

RELATED QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION: What foods or restaurants have you been suspicious about? What product would you love to see analyzed at a food lab?

Debate: What do you think of inserting calorie counts of items right in the description of the food on the menu?
Is this going to far and detracting from enjoyment, or is this a good and responsible movement toward a healthier society? Will this change consumer behavior?

For another interesting study on packaged meals click here:

 For a study on nutrition labeling, please click here:

Walden Farms Italian

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