In 2011, restaurant chains with 20 or more retail stores were required to disclose menu calorie counts on their food items, as well as a posted reminder of the USDA’s recommended 2,000-calorie daily intake.
A 2010 study of major chain restaurants found 29 quick-serve and sit-down restaurant foods averaged 18 percent more of the stated caloric values on menus. Additionally, frozen grocery store dinners had eight per cent more calories than the labels stated.
The study also revealed that some restaurant items contained up to 200% of stated values, and side dishes at some restaurants had more calories than the entrees themselves.
This year, Consumer Reports chose 17 items from 12 casual restaurants and fast-food chains and calculated their nutritional claims. Consumer Reports also weighed each serving and tested the same items from three restaurants in each chain.
Their report analyzed Olive Garden’s new Lighter Fare dishes and found they had more calories and fat than claimed on the company’s website.
Consumer Reports concluded that most claims were accurate. Olive Garden’s Lasagna Primavera with Grilled Chicken was one of only two dishes with calories or fat content higher than the restaurant’s website said at all three locations.
The claim: 420 calories and 15 grams of fat. The reality: 508 to 585 calories and 25 to 32 grams of fat.
(Since this story published, Olive Garden informed Consumer Reports that its website had contained incorrect nutrition information. The lasagna dish, according to Olive Garden, has 530 calories and 20 grams of fat.)
Another food item with more fat than advertised was Outback’s Chicken on the Barbie. Other dishes were either on target or had fewer calories or less fat than claimed.
But Consumer Reports stressed that nutrition information varied widely at some locations.
For example, Denny’s Fit Slam claimed to have 390 calories and 12 grams of fat, but Consumer Reports found those claims in only two restaurants. At a third, the Fit Slam had 494 calories and 19 grams of fat.
Part of the problem is that serving sizes were dramatically inconsistent. In three Olive Garden restaurants, Fettuccine Alfredo weighed roughly 14 to 22 ounces. Portion sizes also varied widely at Applebee’s, Denny’s, and Red Lobster.
Although Consumer Reports concluded nutritional numbers from chain restaurants were generally accurate, they warned readers to beware.
The Cheesecake Factory’s 36-ounce (more than 2 pounds) meatloaf dinner had up to 2,016 calories (the maximum number most people should have in a day) and up to 132 grams of fat (about twice as much).