Do restaurant menu calorie counts reflect reality?
In the May 2013 issue of Consumer Reports, the magazine put popular dishes to the test to see who was telling the truth and who was off the mark.
CR visited restaurants in the New York tri-state area and picked up three samples per item. "We weighed each of the samples, ground them so they would be uniform, and sent them to an outside laboratory for analysis," said Ellen Klosz, program leader, Health & Consumer Science of Consumer Reports.
When the results were returned, "We were pleasantly surprised that most of the menu items met their claims," said Klosz.
Not every restaurant's results were as accurate as they claimed. Olive Garden's Lasagna Primavera with Grilled Chicken was way over its 420 calorie, 15 grams of fat count. Instead, the dish had 508-585 calories and 25-32 grams of fat at three different locations.
"Unfortunately, there was an error with our initial nutritional testing of the Lasagna Primavera with Grilled Chicken when we introduced this item last October - we learned it was mistakenly tested without the grilled chicken," Olive Garden said in a statement. "As soon as we caught this error, we retested the dish with chicken and updated the nutritional information on our website with the new data (530 calories, 20 grams total fat) in late December. Unfortunately, though, the information was not updated everywhere and one page on our website still contained the old nutritional data."
The lasagna wasn't the only thing that was found to be incorrect. The Fettuccine Alfredo dish from Olive Garden ranged in portion size from 14 ounces to 22 ounces.
Olive Garden said that Consumer Reports never gave them a chance to comment on the story or to provide the correct data.
Denny's Fit Slam was consistent with its posting of 390 calories and 12 grams of fat at two locations. The third location's dish had 100 calories and 7 grams of fat more than the first two. The portion sizes of the dishes varied, therefore the calories increased.
Denny's refused to comment on the specific findings, instead citing fresh preparation as a factor in determining exact portion size.
"Our goal is for each of our menu items to be created identically each time they are prepared. However, because all of Denny's food is prepared fresh and made to order by an individual cook, every dish is unique, including the exact portion size and the precise formulation or ingredient ratios," said John Dillon, vice president of marketing for Denny's.
In addition to Denny's and Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Applebee's were also inconsistent in their portion sizes, CR said.
Despite these discrepancies, Consumer Reports found that the other restaurants weren't too far off from what they posted. Some were even a few calories short of their post.
"The chain restaurants are doing a pretty good job," said Keith Ayoob, associate professor of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who was not involved in the CR project.
For a dinner out, Ayoob recommends checking the restaurant's website to keep your meal around 800 calories.
As for the calorie discrepancies, "You're dealing with food which is not an exact science all of the time," he said. "Are we putting demands on chain restaurants that we wouldn't do on a mom and pop and is it fair to do that?"