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The Calorie Detective: When Labels Lie


Since 2009, restaurants in King County with more than 15 locations are required to clearly post the calorie content of their menu items. Starting next month, Obama Care will extend this requirement to the entire country.

A New York filmmaker, named Casey Neistat, did some research and found that the health department doesn’t verify the information provided by restaurants. A quick call to King County Public Health confirms the same here.

“They told me no one checks to make sure these numbers are correct. So I thought I’d assume that responsibility. The actual process for testing caloric content is incredibly complicated and horribly boring. We needed the resources of the Obesity Research Lab at St Luc hospital. It took us 10 hours to test five items.”

Casey selected five items he might eat in an average day and had them analyzed by the lab. First up, a plastic wrapped muffin you can find at any convenience store.

“There’s no nutritional information on their website, so I called them and they faxed me the data. According to them, the muffin had an incredible 640 calories. It was even more incredible to find out there were actually 734.7 calories. That’s more calories than two McDonald’s Egg McMuffins.”

Next up, a Frappuccino at Starbucks.

“A Grande with whipped cream is supposed to have 370 calories. The actual count was 392.9. I can forgive that. The girls at Starbucks like me. They probably just gave me an extra squirt [of whipped cream].”

For his next meal, a burrito at Chipotle.

“I used Chipotle’s online calorie calculator to add up all the ingredients in my burrito. It came to a whopping 1,175 calories. Not a huge surprise. This thing’s as big as my foot. Actual count was just over 10% more, which is an understandable margin. But nonetheless, a lot of unaccountable calories.”

Here’s where it really gets messy.

“A favorite snack of mine are these vegetarian sandwiches. They taste okay, are vegan, kosher, and according to the label only have 228 calories. Plus, in big bold italic red letters, it says: ‘Healthy.’ This healthy sandwich took the trophy for the biggest inaccuracy. Actual calorie content was nearly double what the label said, giving this sandwich about the same amount of calories as a Big Mac.”

Casey also had a Subway sandwich analyzed and it was the only item to come in under the amount of calories listed.

“This isn’t a conclusive study, I didn’t test multiple samples. But I did find, that on this day, if I had based my diet on the calorie count provided to me, because of the discrepancies in those counts, I would have consumed an extra 548 calories. Today’s 548 calorie discrepancy means I unknowingly ate a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese or two Snickers. Which all begs the question: If the requirement to post the information is going to be enforced, why not also enforce its accuracy?”

Mark Rowe is with King County Public Health.

“I think it’s important to note that the law actually does not require 100% accuracy. There is a plus or minus 20% accuracy range.”

Mark feels pretty confident in the current labeling system.

“Tufts University did an accuracy of calorie labeling study in 2011. They looked at about 270 menu items at over 40 restaurants and they found the calorie counts were accurate overall.”

He says people are always welcome to call Public Health to report a discrepancy, but I can’t imagine many people questioning the information on a menu. More people might end up like Casey, who unknowingly ate more than 500 extra calories in a single day.

Watch Casey’s video here

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