Poll: Consumers Aren't Very Good At Estimating Calorie Content

The Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Heart Association recently conducted a scientific poll (unlike the completely unscientific one above) in which they asked a sampling of consumers to tell them which menu items had the fewest calories. The results? Consumers had no clue. One of the poll questions is reproduced above. If you like, you can take a guess and then head inside for the answer. (Peaking is easy, but in poor taste.)

steakhousebeef.jpgIf you guessed “Tuna Melt”—you’re smarter than approximately 96% of consumers. The rest either chose incorrectly or admitted that they didn’t know. Most thought that the Steakhouse Beef Dip or Baja Chicken with Bacon had the most calories. The Steakhouse Beef Dip with cheese and dressing actually has the fewest calories, with 730, whereas the Tuna Melt weighs in at a hefty 1,420.

“Almost everyone failed this quiz,” said Lucy Culp, government affairs director the American Heart Association in WA. “Restaurants don’t make customers guess when it comes to prices; they show them on the menu. There’s no reason to keep vital nutrition information from consumers, and many good reasons to provide it.”

Another question that gave consumers trouble:
Which item at McDonald’s has the most calories?

  • A Big Mac

  • Two sausage McGriddles
  • A large chocolate shake
  • Four regular hamburgers
  • Aren’t you sure?

The correct answer is the large chocolate shake at 1,160 calories. Did you guess correctly? Most consumers didn’t. Only 10% correctly identified the chocolate shake as the item with the most calories.

You can check out the poll results and the report from the CSPI by clicking here.
(Photo:Morton Fox)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Now I’m hungry.

  2. Youthier says:

    It’s a little difficult for me to judge without seeing what sort of dressing is on the sandwich. When I’m actually at Quiznos, looking at the menu and item description, it’s easier to discern what’s healthier.

    That said, I would not have guessed tuna melt no matter what.

  3. APFPilot says:

    I got it right but only because I just read “Eat this, Not That”

  4. cmcd14 says:

    At first I thought it would be the tuna, then I was like, wait, bacon!

  5. B says:

    I’m getting a tuna melt and large chocolate shake for lunch. 1 day’s caloric intake in one meal.

  6. R3PUBLIC0N says:

    The other side of the coin is, the overall effect on eating out on the waistline might be more important than the nutritional factors at restaurants.

  7. TWinter says:

    Tuna at sandwich places is always high in calories because they make it with at ton of mayonnaise.

  8. Bladefist says:

    @The Count of Monte Fisto: mmm chicken Carbonara, hold the mushrooms cuz I’m not a rabbit. Dang it consumerist, now I want quiznos.

  9. qwickone says:

    @Youthier: I think the point is that they have the same dressing, so that calorie info is irrelevant.

  10. I absolutely knew it was the tuna melt. If you look into Subway’s caloric information, you’ll see that their tuna sandwich is one of the worst sandwiches calorically that they offer. Got me on the Mcshake though; I thought 2 Mcgriddles FTW.

  11. mewyn dyner says:

    Honestly speaking, it’s too hard to judge without seeing the product. Do they have cheese and heavy cream sauces? Do they have gobs of mayo? I wouldn’t have thought a tuna melt just because when I make a tuna sandwich I make them pretty light, very easy on light mayo and some herbs for extra flavor.

  12. Master Update Exception says:

    I’m happy to announce that I’m smarter than most (I know you’re all thrilled) and guessed the tuna melt, though it’s really just a process of elimination. Tuna has more calories than anything listed and when you add gobs of cheese to the mix, it’s a no brainer. It’s sad how many people fill their gullets without knowing something as simple as how many calories they’re ingesting.

  13. cmdrsass says:

    As someone who eats a lot fresh tuna, a tuna melt is an absolutely disgusting abomination. Who in their right mind would willingly order one?

  14. AnderBobo says:

    I guess right… but I actually misread the poll and thought they were asking which was the HEALTHIEST option. So I guess I actually lost. Blurg.

  15. failurate says:

    Bacon gets so much bad publicity. Portion sizes are usually small enough to keep it from really wrecking a sandwich calorie wise.

    The mayo they use to hold the tuna together is the killer.

  16. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    I’m waiting for the inevitable, “It’s fast food of course it’s bad for you!” comment.

  17. jscott73 says:

    doh, I thought it said “fewest calories”, so my vote for Steakhouse Beef Dip was correct in that sense, jeesh good thing I don’t have to read for a living…

  18. purplegrog says:

    Quiznos makes it available:

    There’s a link at the bottom of the page to show nutritional information.

    So does McDonalds:

    It might have been the case 5 years ago that it was hard to get nutritional information when eating out, but I think these days it’s not all that hard to find Caloric counts. Mom & Pop restaurants are probable exceptions, though. Thanks Google!

  19. hi says:

    It’s fast food of course it’s bad for you!

  20. zibby says:

    I didn’t read the report, but knowing these guys the phrase, “artery clogging” appears at least 5 or 6 times. They love that one.

  21. ThunderRoad says:

    Damn, and I like a large chocolate shake once in a while.

    Of course, my mid-section shows it.

  22. failurate says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation: I’m waiting for someone to tell us how fantastic the tuna melts are in Europe and that our American tuna melts are a joke.

  23. AnderBobo says:

    @purplegrog: I think the people who actually care are the ones who are going to seek out the caloric information ahead of time. I always check a website to get the nutrition info so I can make the best decision once I’m at the restaraunt. So I think as long as places provide the nutrition info, online or in a pamphlet at the restaurant, then they shouldn’t have to display it hugely and make the person who wants to eat their 1400 calorie burger in peace feel worse, cuz honestly aren’t they probably feeling bad enough?

  24. Zombilina says:

    @hebear mcghee (is a wolf in wolf’s clothing): Fact. Plus, Subway’s tuna has trans fats.

  25. MaliBoo Radley says:

    That’s why I picked it. I thought that the mayo was obvious.

  26. katylostherart says:

    @Assimilation: the tuna itself does not have trans fat, the mayo has it. there’s no fast food restaurant that does fish right. they either bread and fry it or mix it with so much sauce to bulk it up it completely undoes the nutritional benefit of eating seafood.

  27. MaliBoo Radley says:


    It’s not in England, that’s for sure. Over their, that call tuna salad “tuna mayonaise” It’s more mayo than tuna. Nasty!

    Coronation Chicken FTW!!!

  28. Goodnightbabytron says:

    I’m just as bad at guessing my gorgeous wife’s weight. There’s really no way to win.

  29. purplegrog says:

    @AnderBobo: Agreed. Where I live, having pamphlets with nutrition info available is frequently the case in most chain restaurants.

  30. burgundyyears says:

    Woohoo! I got them both right. Tuna sandwiches at retail outlets are killer. More mayo, oil, etc. than tuna in some cases!

  31. ucdcsteve says:

    Does anyone else question the methods of Quiznos sandwich making? They put the meat in a small cylinder of luke-warm meat water before it gets heated. People… it’s dirty meat water. How long has that water been in there? It’s not boiling so it can’t kill bacteria and in fact, it’s warm, which promotes growth of all sorts of wonderful things.

    Bottom line: dirty meat water. I’ll make my own, thanks. Oh, and those $2.99 sandwiches you’re always advertising? Wouldn’t feed a guinea pig with that small portion. It’s $10+ if you want real people food (heated in dirty meat water).

  32. Juliekins says:

    I said tuna melt, but I’m a Nutrition Action Healthletter subscriber and a calorie fascist. Fast food “tuna salad” is always made out of a bucket of full-fat mayo that was near a can of tuna at some point during the assembly process. IIRC, Quiznos also puts cheese on their mayo-tuna sandwiches.

  33. valthun says:

    hmm let me think. Oh yeah, I don’t really care. Its funny how we have gone thousands of years without counting calories and yet we are still progressing as humans. It seems to me the more we count calories the more unhealthy we become. Which I would amount to stress trying to figure all this crap out rather than just enjoying a meal. Yes I know fast food is not the most healthy of foods. But I will still occasionally eat some because its tasty or I am on the road and need food.

  34. SkittleKicks says:

    Uck, mayo.

  35. puddleglum411 says:

    I’m completely against this idea of mandating that restaurants provide this information. Eating out is a vouluntary recreational activity! If nutrutional info is so important to you, take your business to restaurants who provide it; There are plenty of options. Or, tell your favorite place you won’t be eating there until they provide the info. But please, we don’t need more nanny-state laws!

  36. jscott73 says:

    American tuna melts are a joke!! To truly enjoy the subtle characteristics mayonnaise brings out of tuna one must be in Europe.

  37. jamesdenver says:


    I agree. YOu know needs scales and measures to judge whether something is healthy.

    Chicken, non-buttered breads, salads w/out gobs of dressing: healthy.

    Mayonaisse, heavy sauces, sugary syrupy rubs: Not healthy.

    I simply eat in moderation – and at restaurants choose items with sauces on the sides. I always bike every day and workout 2-3 times a week.

    I think proportion control and exercise makes the details of what’s in everything less important.

    james [www.futuregringo.com]

  38. jamesdenver says:


    agree 100%.

  39. linkura says:

    Ugh, for some reason I thought the poll said which has the LEAST calories, and I did guess right on that. Of course, I misread the poll. :(

  40. Ariel.Sanders says:

    @TWinter: TOTALLY TRUE, my favorite sandwich at Subway is the Tuna. It has a whopping 1060 calories and 64 grams of fat. MY GOD , WHO SCREWS UP TUNA? I can only have it on days that I walk 10 miles first or after. GOOD GRIEF!

  41. sir_eccles says:

    The calorie count doesn’t matter to me, I’m doing the Atkins! :-)

  42. Can I just make a suggestion? When there are polls posted, would it be possible to write a little byline for people who use NoScript to let them know what to “unblock” to take/view the poll? Thanks!

  43. jamesdenver says:


    Atkins = Another unhealthy alternative to simply eating in small portions throughout the day and working in walking/biking/running and well, MOVEMENT to your daily life.

  44. stacye says:

    This book called Mindless Eating has some great studies in it. They conducted a study at a Subway, and asked random people what they thought the calorie intake of their meal was.

    One lady who had a 6inch turkey sandwich stated that her sub had only 1 calorie! And thats even with the calories listed on the napkin.

  45. mammalpants says:

    i have a theory.

    if you TRULY believe that a food has no calories or fat, it does not.

    you have to believe it though…believe it more that you believe in yourself or god or free speech or the right to dance in a community where dancing is prohibited.

    the same applies to MORE calories, too..if you believe your milkshake has 3000 calories, it will.

    crap, you know what?? maybe thats why im the size of a horse.

  46. sir_eccles says:

    @jamesdenver: I know and I agree. Perhaps my comment needed a little more explanation than just the little smilie face. I was indeed taking a jab at all those people who think it doesn’t matter how much crap they eat because they are on Atkins or whatever the latest fad diet is.

  47. Trai_Dep says:

    The fact that 80% of Consumerist readers (atypical, to the extreme) got that answer wrong speaks volumes about the need for calorie labeling at chain restaurants.
    Unless you’re a fan of fraud.

  48. KAIZEN says:

    @TWinter: That’s exactly what I thought too. Mayo FTL….

  49. Sian says:

    I got it right cause I used to work at a sandwich shop years ago.

    Mayonnaise is full of calories, and the tuna melt is full of mayonnaise.

    Baja chicken is probably number 2, mostly because of the sauce that’s on it.

    #3 would go to the italian, for fatty salami and sausage meats.

  50. louveciennes says:

    I guessed tuna melt because years ago I read that the Fillet O’Fish had the most calories of any sandwich at McDonald’s–keep in mind this was before the current fad of foot-high steakbaconlardburgers or whatever insanely fattening crap they’re dishing out nowadays.

  51. nardo218 says:

    @mewyn dyner: What kind of herbage? I never know what to put in tuna other than relish.

  52. cerbie says:

    Sugar, bread, fat -> calories. How much you feel you’ve eaten has nothing to do with it.

    So, of course, I got both right. Think of it this way: how are four buns and maybe a teaspoon of grease going to pump you up on calories? OTOH, the shake has tons of sugar, and a decent bit of milk fat, I would hope. It also covets Carl’s pool, but that’s neither here nor there.

  53. wellfleet says:

    i guessed tuna melt because of all the mayo AND cheese. a small coke has fewer calories than the same amount of 2% milk. wild.

  54. plustax says:

    @ucdcsteve: aww man, why did you have to bring up the dirty meat water? I’ve seen that and it does concern me but the place has the “A” sign from the LA County Department of Health. That sign means it’s all good right? And seriously a “B” couldn’t be all that bad? That means “good” right? It’s 12:45 here and I’m thinking about lunch. oh well.

  55. lpranal says:

    @Sian: Baja Chicken weighs in at only 770 w/ cheese and dressing… 690 if you get it w/o cheese which is disgusting on that thing anyway.
    Looked it up because thats actually a good sandwhich, 770 is completely fine for me because i need 3000 calories a day just to maintain my weight (6’3″ 210) and i lift weights and mountain bike alot. Yeah theres some bad stuff in there but I only get it once every few weeks.

  56. bdsakx says:

    A “Regular Hamburger” sounds good right about now! The simplicity of those burgers are just so alluring, and they’re so cheap.

  57. Bladefist says:

    @Trai_Dep: I got the answer wrong, yet I don’t feel deceived. The real deception would come if they did put the calories on the menu.

  58. Benny Gesserit says:

    Peaking is easy, but in poor taste.

    Um, I’m sorry but I think you meant “peeking”. ;) Yes, it is in bad taste and can get one arrested in the right (wrong?) circumstances.

    As for “peaking”, we all peak eventually and it’s nothing to be ashamed about.

  59. Moosehawk says:

    On friday I bought two medium pizzas and 2 boxes of breadsticks from Pizza hut for $20.

    I ate it all within 24 hours, and wow was it delicious.

  60. Trai_Dep says:

    @Bladefist: deceit is probably too strong a word, and I’ll take it back. However, many of the offerings are counterintuitive. Labeling is the only way for consumers to be armed enough to make the rational choice for them.

  61. tz says:

    Peaking might be rude, but is PEEKing ok? Or outsourcing to Peking?

  62. Uriel says:

    well, got that one wrong, better go shoot myself three times now.

  63. banmojo says:

    I had had the idea to start a chain restaurant which listed the entire nutritional contents (with calories, carbs, fats, protein, salt, etc) for each item on the menu. I still think with a great menu and lots of variety including both vege and non vege offerings it would be a big hit in SoCal. But given that 90% of new restaurants are belly up by the end of the first year, I decided instead to become a doctor. Now I’m sad.

  64. ChuckECheese says:

    Consumers are good at estimating deliciousness, not calories. Doesn’t that count for something?

  65. Ron Seigel says:

    Why the hell do I have to read this *after* Quiznos closes?

    Damn you…damn you all!

    Mmmmmmm….tuna melt.

  66. Uriel says:


    To eat at a place that thought to put singing, dancing, Spanish rats in front of their sub ads, was a good idea, how formidable do you believe these people’s “pallets of deduction” to be?

  67. My daughter needs a high calorie diet… first thing the Dr. recommends? Tuna fish sandwiches! milkshakes! avacados!

  68. radio1 says:

    Man. This brings back memories.

    I used to work at a Subway in college. There was a small, well-equipped gym next door.

    These two hot chicks would come in after their workouts and get a foot-long tuna sub (each) with all the veggies and cheese. But what got me, was they always asked for extra mayo. And not just a little- but a lot.

    I could not stop thinking, “Don’t you know how we make this stuff?” and “We use the extra-heavy Portuguese mayo to boot, and this ‘tuna’ is mostly mayo…”

    But then again- they were hot, so whatever they were doing worked out for them.

  69. glitterpig says:

    I am very good at estimating calories, (and got both questions right) but that’s because I’m obsessive. And Costco STILL got me with their slice of cheese pizza – I thought it’d be a better choice than a churro (fried carbs + sugar) or a smoothie (mostly sugar), but it turns out that sucker has 800 calories. I mean, it’s a big slice, but not THAT big – do they inject it with lard or something? You can get a churro AND a berry smoothie for fewer calories. You could eat a Big Mac and a half for that many calories. It’s insane.

    Which I guess is kind of the point. Nutritional content can be deceiving. I don’t think restaurants should have it printed on their menus, because that’s just tacky, but it should be available if a customer asks.

  70. ChuckECheese says:

    @NeroDiavolo: Wow I forgot all about those rat commercials. Are they rats or bad taxidermy ferrets? And let’s not forget the wolf-lactation.