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Posting Restaurant Caloric Content

By: NCSF  on:  May 16 2013
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Would it help consumers if they could actually make an educated decision on what to eat at restaurants? Would people actually select a breakfast muffin if they knew it had 600 kcal? Unlike cooking at home, diners are subject to menus without complete transparency. While the restaurant industry looks to implement new rules requiring chains with 20 or more locations to post caloric content information, wouldn’t it be reasonable for all restaurants to provide consumers with the nutritional content of their products? With the new federal rules approximately 50% of the nation's restaurant locations but will be exempt from review requirements. To underscore the real concern, researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University analyzed meals from independent and small-chain restaurants. They found that on average, per portion size, caloric density was two to three times the estimated calorie needs of an individual adult at a single meal and 66% of typical daily calorie requirements.

The findings published in JAMA Internal Medicine used the bomb calorimetry method to analyze 157 full meals from 33 randomly selected individual or small-chain restaurants, none of which provided nutritional information. Researchers collected samples from a diverse group of popular restaurant types including Mexican, American, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, and Thai, among others. The selections were based on the nine most commonly ordered foods from each restaurant. "On average, the meals studied contained 1,327 calories, which significantly exceeds the estimated energy needs of an individual adult at a single meal," said senior and corresponding author Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the HNRCA.

Researchers cited some alarming, but suspected facts:

  • Roughly three-quarters of the meals that were analyzed contained more than half of the FDA's daily energy recommendation of 2,000 calories
  • 8% of meals contained more than the entire recommended daily energy intake for an average adult.
  • Among the meal categories studied, the Italian (1,755 calories), American (1,494 calories) and Chinese (1,474 calories) meals had the highest average calorie levels.

Of further interest when researchers examined a subset of the independent or small-chain restaurant meals they found that their average calorie content was 6% higher than the equivalent meals in the largest national chain restaurants. This is not good for anyone as the average meal served at independent or small-chain restaurants had 1,437 calories, whereas the average meal of the large chain had 1,359 calories. "These comparative findings suggest that both non-chain and chain restaurants contribute to the obesity epidemic, which is making people unhealthy and has a huge impact on health care costs," said Dr. Roberts. With the average American eating out 5x a week this adds up to a high number of weekly calories. Likewise the effects of large meals on insulin and related metabolic actions is concerning. The real issue though may be the fact that consumers have no idea how many calories they are consuming.

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