Sunday, February 24, 2013

How Accurate is Calorie Information?

Since January of 2011, California law has required restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calorie information for each food item on all menus in order to give consumers the information they need to make healthy choices when dining out. This may be easy for fast food places to calculate since most of their products are assembled with uniformity and consistency in mind. Each burger always has a specific amount of sauce on it, exactly three pickles, and always on the same bun.

But what about restaurants where the food is actually prepared to order? Counting calories now becomes a tricky operation even though the number is on the menu. Corporate may have formulated a dish to contain one cup of pasta, one tablespoon of butter, and two tablespoons of parmesan cheese in order to calculate the calorie content, but in reality, cooks don't have the time to pre-measure ingredients, especially when the front of the house is packed with customers who wanted their food five minutes ago. One cup of pasta becomes one handful, one tablespoon becomes a spoonful, and two tablespoons of cheese? Just grab some parmesan and add it to the pasta until it looks right. Full service restaurant chains have a much harder time maintaining consistency than fast food and quick service restaurants. The Cheesecake Factory and Olive Garden are among those whose menu items have been tested to reveal that they actually have contain more calories than advertised to customers.

So if restaurants can't be consistent, we can count on packaged products to be, right? Not really. Filmmaker Casey Neistat purchased a variety of food products from both markets and fast food restaurants to see if their reported calorie content matched their actual calorie content. With the help of two food scientists and a calorimeter, he found out that even labeled food was not accurate. You can see the full results here:

I understand that for places like Chipotle and Subway, it's easy to deviate from the reported calorie content since the amount of components in the sandwich or burrito varies depending on who's making it (and whether or not you're a nice customer...). But labeled foods are produced in places where portions can be controlled. Of course, I wouldn't expect the reported and actual numbers to be exactly the same, but with such large discrepancies, I can't help but wonder if I'm being lied to every time I buy something packaged.

Surprisingly, lying is legal. After digging around the internet a little, I found out that the FDA (who is responsible for enforcing food labels) allows a 20% margin of error when companies report the caloric content of their product. So that means a frozen dinner that claims to be only 500 calories can actually contain up to 600 calories. This margin gives room for inevitable discrepancies, but is 20% too much of an airbag? Should the Nutrition Facts panel contain some kind of disclaimer?