Does That Chain Restaurant Or Fast Food Match The Nutritional Information? Apparently Not.

TV stations all over the country recently got together and tested a bunch of dishes from chain restaurants and fast food places to see if the nutritional information they were advertising actually matched the food. The report targeted menu options from chains such as Applebee’s, Macaroni Grill, Taco Bell and Chili’s that were marketed as healthy. So did the calories in the food match the calories on the menu? Nope. Of the items tested, all but one were way over on calories, or fat content… or both.

For example, the Pollo Magro Skinny Chicken from Macaroni Grill was supposed to have 500 calories and 6 g of fat. It actually had 1022 calories and 49 g of fat. (This total includes the bread and huge vat of cheese that comes on the side) Chili’s Guiltless Grill Salmon claimed to have 480 calories and 14 g of fat when it actually contained 664 calories and 35.5 g of fat. Taco Bell’s Fresco Grilled Steak Soft Taco is billed as having 160 calories and 4.5 g of fat. Watch out if you plan on eating a few of these, because the sample they tested contained 297 calories and 19.6 g of fat.

You can see the rest of the results here.

What’s On the Menu [WXYZ](Thanks, Jack!)

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  1. opsomath says:

    this is why mandatory caloric value posting for foods is ridiculous…make the same dish twice, it’ll have different calorie values.

  2. sir_pantsalot says:

    Other breaking news that was released. Water is wet, sky still blue and politicians are crooks.

  3. This reminds me of when I was eating at The Cheesecake Factory over the weekend. They have these salads that are billed “healthy” because the calories in each salad are something like 650. 650. For a salad. I can’t even begin to imagine how many calories are in a “regular” salad. It doesn’t surprise me that the fat and calories were over in all of the foods that were tested. I mean, how many of the cooks are really measuring everything out? When it’s lunch or dinner hour and the orders are pouring in I doubt any of the cooks take the time to measure.

  4. Ryan H says:

    @opsomath:
    Well, yes and no. Assuming that you are using even semi standard measurements it is going to be close. If they advertise 500 calories and some are 550 or even 600 that’s no problem. Same with fat. They say there is 6 grams and a few end up having 7, that’s life.

    But how does normal variance account for going from 6 to 49 grams of fat? It’s kind of hard not to notice when you add another 43 grams of pure lard to the recipe. Also doubling the calories? Double! Oops, we accidentally put twice as much food on your plate?

    This is premeditated false advertising, nothing less.

  5. If you’ve been measuring/gauging your calorie intake for more than a couple days, it’s not hard to figure out whether something has more/fewer calories than expected. This doesn’t absolve them of such widespread errors, but the corporate amounts are widespread estimates or medians. YMMV from cook to cook.

  6. Sugarless says:

    I would expect a slight variation between the actual meal and the estimated calories, but some of these are really large discrepancies.

    Water may be wet, but we aren’t talking about water. We’re talking about people being able to make informed choices on the number of calories they consume.
    A dish listed as providing 500 calories that actually contains double that amount matters to me.

  7. dragonfire81 says:

    @PhiCancri: Salads are one of the biggest health food scams of all. People think “oh it’s a salad, it MUST be healthy.

    Thing is, most salads (and practically all salads you get at restaurants) are loaded with pieces of chicken, bacon bits, croutons and loads of cheese and dressing. In a lot of cases they are just as UNhealthy for you as a burger.

  8. That-Dude says:

    @Ryan H: the 6 to 49 is most likely a factor of the melted cheese. If you think you can eat 8 oz of cheese without any ill effects, you need your own nutritionist.

  9. Kajj says:

    @PhiCancri: Yeah, I wonder what the solution is on the restaurant side. They could portion out each ingredient, but since many dishes aren’t made a single serving at a time, that would really slow down the kitchen.

  10. Well, at least in the Mac Grill example they included the bread and dip that comes with meals. That wouldnt be included on the calories since its not part of the dish, just included with every order.

    Same with dressings or sauces. Eating in the restaurant you get a little dressing on the dish, takeout comes with a larger amount in a seperate cup. That would probably up the cals considerably if you ate it all.

    Still doesnt explain discrepancies on Taco Bell food though.

  11. Seems like I remember hearing something about Applebee’s Weight Watcher menu where the foods HAD to be prepared a certain way each time and it produced the proper results…

  12. No surprise here.. There are too many variables in the prep of food unless it comes right out of a can and is heated up.

    The Taco Bell thing does suck though. As stupid as it sounds I would treat myself occasionally to something there if I kept my other calories for the day in check, with that sort of variation though, ugh..

  13. BlackFlag55 says:

    Second Opsomath. And trying to exactly replicate each dish leads to industrialization of food, the very last thing anyone should seek.

    Anybody ever work at Applebees? I was told by a former employee that virtually everything on the menu comes in boxes, cans, containers and plastic, frozen for reheating. Even the steaks. Is that right, sorta right or not right? ‘Cause if it is right … ewwwww.

  14. joshthephenom says:

    This is interesting. I wonder how much of it is cook error. For example, the dish specs might call for the chicken breast to be put on their flat grill, without oil, but I can tell you an average cook will deffinitely put down some sort of cooking oil, as it speeds up the cooking time, and generally makes the item taste better. This alone can add many grams of fat to the dish.

  15. graymulligan says:

    @structuralpoke

    If it’s got the weightwatcher’s name on it, I’ll bet its more likely to be what it is supposed to be. They’re very picky with what they’ll endorse as far as content goes.

    I’m with Sir_pantsalot. This shouldn’t be suprising at all.

  16. @dragonfire81: Actually from what I’ve seen the salads are worse than burgers

  17. strathmeyer says:

    If you think burgers are unhealthy maybe you people shouldn’t be eating out so much.

  18. Brunette Bookworm says:

    There’s a big difference in the variation of calories and fat in each dish each time you make it and the doubling of fat and calories between what advertised and what they actually contain. I’d like to know what they are doing to the food that makes it so far off what their nutritional facts state. I expect a variance of 50-60 calories and maybe a gram of fat in either direction because of differences in how people measure, but not that much. I would think this also costs the restaurant money if employees are adding items with a heavy hand.

  19. Vicky says:

    This is enlightening. I find it hard to believe that simple variance in preparation can account for the 3.5x difference in fat content for the “Guiltless Grill Chicken Platter” from the site. It’s a small-ish grilled chicken breast with no topping, a small dish of black beans (no doubt from a can) and a side of broccoli with carrot shavings – not a lot of room for fudging. I suppose I should not be surprised, but I am, and I feel so naive for thinking I was making an informed decision when I chose that restaurant and that dish.

  20. mir777 says:

    Want to hear something hilarious! the White Castle web site has detailed nutrition information, but appears to list the bun separately as some kind of add-on like cheese. So I can’t tell if the nutrition info for the burger (which you would never eat naked) is 170 calories, or 170 calories plus 70 for the regular bun.

    [www.whitecastle.com]

  21. mgy says:

    I sometimes wonder if all of this time and money and stress expended counting calories is more threatening to a person’s life than the calories themselves.

  22. rmz says:

    @opsomath: Amen. Although that is just one of the many reasons that mandatory caloric labeling is a bad idea.

  23. Jmatthew says:

    I think counting calories is silly when we can’t even notice the actual MASS of the food we’re eating.

    Wow, you mean a salad bigger than my head has a lot of calories?! That’s amazing!

  24. most nutritional information on products is calculated using just the “base” product (i.e. subway calculates the nutritional content of their subs completely plain…meaning no cheese, condiments, toppings, etc)

    I think that’s why there is such a big disparity

  25. Look, if there ought to be ANY benefit to eating pre-packaged, frozen and/or nuked food at a restaurant, it ought to be nutritional consistency! And what’s broken in at the printers’, that they can’t put a RANGE of calories on the menu — is it too expensive to print “500-700 calories”?

    No, I’m sorry, selling people food and lying to them about what it is is not cool, no matter what the extenuating circumstances are. Is it hard to estimate? Work harder, or say you’re estimating and by how much you might be off. Is it difficult to fit that information on the menus? Figure it out, dammit! If you’re selling food, having this information available AND ACCURATE is YOUR responsibility. You don’t like that responsibility, get out of the business. Way simple.

  26. @strathmeyer: Put down whatever drugs led you to assume that people who want to know what they’re eating are the same as people who eat out too much.

    Sober up, and read the article again later. K? Thx.

  27. legotech says:

    @BlackFlag55: I went to culinary school with a couple of guys who’d worked at either Appleee’s or Chili’s and they said EVERYTHING came out of a can/box/bag…even the meat. They’d just toss it on the grill to get grill marks on it.

  28. astruc says:

    @mir777: They break out the bun for people for follow low-carb diets like South Beach and Atkins. It’s actually pretty helpful.

  29. dreamcatcher2 says:

    @rainmkr: Considering the list of restaurants, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of these meals were standardized/processed to the point of being very close to coming out of a can.

  30. chrisjames says:

    If they bothered to read the disclaimer on the nutritional labeling, they’d have found that the values can vary by location, by region, by cooking staff, by time of day, at random, and for no reason. While that’s obvious and unavoidable, they would realize the disclaimer is also a big ass loophole, with a group of CEOs on the other side of it, laughing and mooning us all.

  31. trujunglist says:

    @opsomath:

    I would think that the average caloric/fat content of a meal would suffice. Chances are, if the meals are made in a similar fashion, then they will be close to the average. That would be especially true for a fast food place, where everything is exactly the same by design. Chain restaurants probably have a tiny bit more flexibility.
    I’d say that a triple-fold increase in fat content is NOT even close to the average. There’s an acceptable margin of error and then there’s this.

  32. stacye says:

    I’m curious what the original posted serving size was. Restaurants often give you more food than is in one serving, and like others said: sometimes when a cook is in a rush they plop more down than they should.

    For instance, Taco Bell’s Fresco Grilled Steak Soft Taco used in the article states the serving size as 163.4. But the serving size listed on Taco Bell’s web site is 128. TB posts 1.25 cals/gram, and the article shows 1.82 cals/gram. Had they used the posted serving size, the calories would have come out to 233. This puts it at a difference of 73 calories, which is in an acceptable range of error.

    I only use Taco Bell as an example, because I couldn’t find the official serving sizes of the other places. If we are going to have nutritional information, then serving size should be a mandatory posting.

  33. thatgirlinnewyork says:

    @Kajj: @Vicky: this is what one has to live with when someone else prepares their food–doubt. doubt very much that the restaurants are disclosing the caloric or fat content of the means of making these dishes–the lard, oil and what have you.

    that chicken breast is fine on its own, but with what was it slathered in order to cook it? those beans could be from a can, but some come packed in some level of lard, or cooked with some for taste.

    if this is to be truly beneficial to consumers, restaurants would have to disclose all ingredients used in cooking, including these oils, as well as their nutritional content–it’s a law that seems to only go halfway.

    but then again, can we really expect these chain restaurants to make healthy meals? most of the foodstuffs used to create these meals are highly processed and packaged, so why leave it them to keep you healthy?

  34. TMurphy says:

    I’d be curious if there is anything that can be done about the misleading advertising- I mean it’d be hard to put a number of added calories is enough to get fined over, and if you do put a number on it all the places will just lie by that amount.

    This doesn’t affect me much, though, as I dislike Applebees, Chilis, etc. more than standard fast food places. I’d rather go with a bit more grease than spend more money on food that tastes worse. Nor do I like the idea of waiting for my food unless it is actually worth waiting for. (Am I going to be torn to pieces over my Chilis hating, or am I not the only one that feels this way?)

  35. thatgirlinnewyork says:

    @TMurphy: it’s so easy to hate them all equally–whether it’s applebee’s, chilis, or mcdonald’s–they all get their foodstuffs from the same sources, and they all make crappy food. why discriminate?

  36. TechnoDestructo says:

    @Jmatthew:

    Lettuce has almost no calories in it. So the bulk of the salad really doesn’t matter.

    Some dressings are like pure fat, others have barely more calories than the lettuce. It is usually, but not always, easy to tell the two apart. You could make a salad bigger than your head that only had 2 or 300 calories, and not have it suck. The problem here is it isn’t always easy to tell when that has been done just by looking, sometimes not even just by tasting; and the information being given, which is supposed to compensate for that, isn’t reflecting reality.

  37. Coles_Law says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised by a small overshoot, but some of these are huge. I know from my McDonald’s time that the specified number of sprays of mystery butter we use on the grilled chicken would result in the chicken fusing to the grill, so we used a couple extra-maybe added 1g fat, tops. I’m pretty sure I’ve never sent out a 1500 calorie Big Mac or any other 3x overshoot though.

  38. HawkWolf says:

    I can guarantee that at both qdoba and chipotle – at least the ones near my house – they far overshoot the nutritional values on their websites. in fact, chipotle uses so much salt in their beans that when I eat their burritos, I think I am going to die of a stroke.

    hence, I do not eat their burritos any more.

  39. BlackFlag55 says:

    Legotech – exactly what I was told, right down to the comment about grill marks.

    Ewwwww … and then some.

    Folks, is this really what most people want to eat? If so, good Lord. Why not just save the money and chew a box?

  40. Hambriq says:

    Remember folks that a tablespoon of oil contains 13+ grams of fat and 120 calories. When you’re pouring oil into a pan, it’s very easy to overshoot by a tablespoon or two, which I imagine accounts a huge portion of the differences in fat and calories in these dishes.

  41. RvLeshrac says:

    @stacye:

    Wow, someone actually figured it out. U R S-M-R-T.

    For everyone else, read stacye’s comment.

    The best possible example of the serving-size deal? Pork Rinds.

    Yes, pork rinds. Pork rinds are actually one of the healthier “junk food”/salty snacks you can pick, if you eat them in the recommended serving size. I happen to have a bag of “Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos” and a bag of “Kroger Hot & Spicy Pork Rinds” here. Consider that Pork Rinds are fried fat.

    Kroger Hot & Spicy Pork Rinds:
    80 Calories
    4.5g fat
    15mg Cholestorol
    370mg Sodium
    0g Carbs

    Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos:
    140 Calories
    7g fat
    0mg Cholestorol
    270mg Sodium
    18g Carbs

    (also, for reference, Wild White Cheddar Cheetos:
    150 Calories
    11g fat
    0mg Cholestorol
    250mg Sodium
    13g Carbs)

    The biggest difference? Serving size. The serving size for pork rinds is 1/2oz, while the serving size for both of the other snacks is 1oz.

    And the 1/2oz of pork rinds is going to be a more filling snack than the chips, honestly. I can eat a bag of Doritos in one sitting, but I can’t eat too many pork rinds before I’m full. It also makes them more economical, since the pork rinds last longer and cost slightly less.

    (While I’m on the subject, I picked up a bag of Kokuto Karinto from the jap. grocery earlier today. 130 calories, 1g fat, 0mg cholestorol, 10mg sodium, 15g carbs, and they’re one of the sweetest snacks I’ve ever eaten. Best comparison to an American snack I can think of is 100% Wheat Cheetos heavily coated with brown sugar & honey. I dare you to find an American snack this rich with values like these.)

  42. RvLeshrac says:

    @Hambriq:

    Another good point.

    Don’t forget that, say, Taco Bell meat from the bottom of the pan is going to have a lot more oil than the meat on top.