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Jul 25, 2011

Accuracy of Nutritional Information on Restaurant Menus

Nutritional information in restaurants is not as accurate as we may think.

It is estimated that about half of all Americans eat out at least three meals each week, with 12% eating at restaurants more than once a day. Unfortunately, the frequent eating out has greatly contributed to the national epidemic of obesity and heart disease. Not only do restaurants most often serve foods high in fat and calories, most Americans are unaware of the nutritional content of the food, leading to long-term weight gain.

To help counteract this trend, the government has required that most chain restaurants offer nutritional information for menu items, and some states, such as New York, require that this be listed on menus for consumers to see. The hope is that not only will Americans become more aware of the nutritional content of the food they eat in restaurants, but that making healthy choices will become easier for consumers.

But how accurate is the nutritional information supplied by restaurants? Are the low-calorie or low-fat restaurant meals too good to be true?

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association pursued this question, investigating the accuracy of nutritional information in restaurants. Researchers secretly analyzed 269 food items from 42 fast-food and sit-down restaurants located in Massachusetts, Arkansas and Indiana. While the caloric listing for most meals were accurate overall, they found some glaring discrepancies between stated calories and actual calories in restaurant meals. First, 52% of meals — most of which were higher-calorie entrees — had at least 10 less calories per portion than stated by the restaurant. On the other hand, 40% of meals contained at least 10 more calories per portion than stated by the restaurant. Nineteen percent of foods — most of which were low-calorie meals — contained more than 100 calories per portion over the stated number. Only 7% of items were within 10 calories of the stated nutritional content.

Based on findings, legislation requires adjustment to better control for the accurate nutritional content of restaurants. But how can diet-conscious consumers continue to make healthy decisions in restaurants for the time being? Keep in mind that most nutritional content in restaurants was generally accurate, with over half containing at least 10 calories per portion less than stated. Also, fast-food nutritional information was more accurate than at sit-down restaurants, so that content can generally be trusted. Most importantly, stick to lean meats, vegetables and whole grains, and watch your portions. Some side dishes, especially in sit-down restaurants, can be oversized, exceeding the total calories listed in nutritional content. 

Questions for You to Consider

  • How accurate is nutritional information in fast-food and sit-down restaurants?

  • A recent study found that nutritional information is more accurate in fast-food restaurants than sit-down restaurants. Experts suggest that fast-food nutritional information may be more accurate because the food is in exact portion sizes, often in containers. In sit-down restaurants, food is served on a plate with less-regulated portions. They also found that foods with lower-stated caloric content had higher actual caloric content, while foods with higher-stated caloric content had lower actual calorie content. Interestingly, side dishes in sit-down restaurants tended to have more calories than stated, rather than the entrees they accompanied.
  • Which foods were least accurate?

  • Overall, foods with lower-stated caloric content had higher actual caloric content, while foods with higher-stated caloric content had lower actual calorie content. Of all foods, side dishes in sit-down restaurants tended to have more calories than stated, rather than the entrees they accompanied. 

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