* Menu calorie counts often inaccurate - research
* Possible hurdle for new U.S. healthcare law
* More than a third of U.S. adults are obese
By Frederik Joelving
NEW YORK, July 19 (Reuters Health) - U.S. restaurants are
starting to list calorie counts on menu items, but new research
shows those labels may not be accurate enough, particularly
when it comes to individual items.
"The big story may be that there is such a huge spread in
the numbers," said Lorien Urban, a nutrition researcher at
Tufts University in Boston, who worked on the study of dozens
of restaurants in three states.
"Essentially what that is saying is, you really don't know
what you are getting."
All told, only seven percent of the French fries, burgers
and other food items the team sampled were within 10 calories
from the stated values.
That could be a hurdle for the new U.S. healthcare law,
which requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to list
calories on their menus in the hopes this will help curb the
nation's obesity epidemic
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, more than a third of U.S. adults are now obese. And
one in six children and teenagers land in that category,
setting them up for heart disease and other ailments down the
While health regulators are trying to tackle the problem
from different angles, one of the most obvious tactics is to
get Americans to reverse the trend of overeating that has
plagued the country for decades -- particularly in
"Currently, Americans are getting a third of their calories
away from home," Urban told Reuters Health. "We think labeling
of all foods is going to be helpful, because people are eating
a lot more calories than they think."
The new work, published in the Journal of the American
Medical Association (bit.ly/4HWZ7), is the first large
study to test the reliability of existing menus.
Urban's team visited 42 quick-serve and sit-down
restaurants in Massachusetts, Arkansas and Indiana, and ordered
take-out for 269 different food items.
In lab tests, they found 40 percent of the foods contained
at least 10 calories more than stated, while 52 percent had at
least 10 calories fewer.
And nearly one in five items packed 100 or more excess
calories -- a finding that was most pronounced for
That's a problem, Urban said, because downing 100 calories
more than you need every day will lead to weight gains of
between 11 and 33 pounds over a year.
Sit-down restaurants were the main culprit behind the extra
calories, because portion sizes varied quite a bit, she said.
"There were several cases where we just got a lot more than
we thought they were going to give us," Urban said.
Joy Dubost of the National Restaurant Association said the
group was pleased to see that calorie labeling at restaurants
is accurate on average.
"Restaurant food is hand prepared, which can create some
variation, but this study shows that variance in caloric
information to be small in most cases," she said in a statement
to Reuters Health.
"With the new menu labeling law, we know that many
restaurant chains are looking at tighter kitchen quality
control standards, from the weight of the meals to the package
sizes used for take out."
DOES LABELING WORK?
Even if menus were 100 percent accurate, there is no
ironclad proof that calorie labeling works as intended, and
researchers remain divided on the issue.
In February, for instance, one New York study found menu
labeling at restaurants such as McDonald's (MCD.N), Burger
King, Wendy's WEN.N and KFC (YUM.N) had made no dent in
youngsters' appetite for calorie-crammed fare.
"We, and others, haven't yet found evidence that labeling
encourages large scale changes in purchasing of fast food,"
Brian Elbel, who worked on that study, told Reuters Health by
email. "We haven't looked at sit down places, but should,"
added Elbel, of New York University School of Medicine.
Urban countered that most studies show menu labeling does
work, particularly when it includes information on how many
daily calories a person should eat to maintain a healthy
"People need to know that 2,000 calories is all an average
person needs a day," said Urban. "Once you put that on the
label it is very effective. The majority of studies show
Her advice to weight-conscious consumers? Order foods you
have more control over, like salads with the dressing or the
cheese on the side.
"That salad with ranch dressing probably has a lot more
calories than you think it does," she said. "There is research
to show that even nutrition experts are really bad at looking
at a plate and telling how many calories are in there."