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Calorie listings often wrong

Here's a new wrinkle in the ongoing debate over calorie listings on restaurant menus and on packaged grocery-store foods: The calorie counts currently provided are apt to be wrong.

A study in the January Journal of the American Dietetic Association found calorie counts listed for 29 quick-serve and sit-down restaurant foods averaged 18 percent more than stated. And calorie counts for 10 frozen supermarket meals averaged 8 percent more than their labels claimed.

And those are just the averages. Three supermarket meals and seven restaurant foods were found to contain as much as twice the calories they listed.

Researchers aimed to evaluate foods likely to be chosen by people interested in controlling their weight. So they analyzed menu items from 10 Boston-area quick-serve and sit-down chain restaurants (From Denny's and Ruby Tuesday to Taco Bell and McDonald's) that were listed as containing 500 calories or fewer, and that were among the lowest-calorie mainstream choices on the menu. Among frozen convenience foods, they selected complete meals that someone might eat instead of going out to eat.

Besides the calorie count discrepancy, the researchers learned that some of the restaurants offered side dishes free without accounting for the substantial extra calories they provided. In fact, the study says, the average calorie count for these bonus foods was 471 -- higher than the average 443 calories in the main menu item they came with.

This might not be a big deal for those of us who only rarely eat at such restaurants or consume frozen meals. But for people who eat those foods regularly, those extra calories could add up to pounds of weight gained over the course of a year.

Before we require restaurants to provide calorie counts for the foods they serve, we'd better find a way to ensure that they provide accurate data -- or at least let consumers know that the figures are just ballpark numbers, give or take a few dozen calories. If we're to become dependent on restaurants for our nutrition savvy, the information they provide had better be dependable.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  January 11, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
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