Can We Trust Calorie Listings?

Starbucks calories | Photo: bitchcakes/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Counts of calories on fast food menus are, on the surface, a pretty good idea. (Despite, as I've stated before, their inherent quotient of shame which, frankly, I don't personally need in my life.) If a customer is given the information up front regarding how many calories an item contains, chances are they'll think twice before SuperSizing that item, or maybe they'll come to their senses and determine they only need one double cheeseburger instead of two. This decision-making process is the end result of an implied contract between the restaurant and customer: You give us the information, we'll make the decision.

However, as the recent Horse/DonkeyBurger scandal taught us, if the basic information about what's in the products is inaccurate, the decision is compromised. Instead of an informed choice, consumers are just throwing darts at a wall. And unfortunately, mislabeling doesn't end with ingredients lists.

As the short documentary "Calorie Detective" over at New York Times suggests -- which, frankly, I'd love to embed here, but NYT has an embargo when it comes to that kind of thing -- the numbers that are listed lack quite a bit in the realm of "being correct."

Using the backdrop of the approaching implementation of Obamacare, which will force chain restaurants with over 20 locations to post calorie counts on their menus, filmmaker Casey Neistat decided to check the current standards in place. See, over in New York City there's already a regulation in place forcing companies to list caloric information. But, seeing as the process is so time-consuming (it took Neistat and two food scientists ten hours to test five items), no one is verifying the listings themselves. So to check the accuracy, Neistat took a not-so-unlikely day's worth of food (sandwiches, coffees, treats and burritos), stuck them through a caloric processor, and compared them to how they were labeled.

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In most cases, the counts were close, but still over by a dozen or a few dozen calories. Of the five items he tested, the only item that came in under the amount listed was, surprisingly , a six-inch sandwich from Subway. The worst offender, meanwhile, was one of those nondescript "healthy" vegan sandwiches from a local bodega. But the main takeaway from the doc wasn't that one item was terribly mislabeled, it was that most of them were slightly mislabeled. The big shock, then, isn't that a Starbucks Frappuccino has 12 more calories than it lists, or that a Chipotle burrito has about 100 more. It's that these slight discrepancies become big ones when you add them up throughout the day.

In just those five items, Neistat would have ingested 548 more calories than he would have thought. Or, as he puts it in the doc:

And that's the big rub of the mindset that, if you want to lose weight, all you need to do is watch what you eat. If you're getting bad information, it doesn't matter how good your vision is. This experiment is proof that it's a gross simplification to believe that "calories in, calories out" is a legitimate philosophy. Before plugging numbers into that simple calculation, consumers need to be given the proper numbers. To use a bit of a sports analogy, it would be like determining the winner of a Clippers/Lakers basketball game after being told the two teams scored about 98 points apiece.

Neistat ends the short doc with a simple yet important question:

If there's no one watching, the calorie counts might as well be random numbers.

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