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Myth: nutritional claims and calorie counts on labels and menus are accurate

TRUTH: I want to preface this with an experience I had this past Saturday.  I was entering Dunkin Donuts to purchase an iced coffee. Outside the entrance, there was a thin, frail man who was hungry and asking for food, not money, just food. As I walked in, I decided to purchase a muffin for him. I ordered my coffee and a blueberry muffin. The girl working the counter began to reach for a muffin labeled ‘reduced fat blueberry muffin’ and I said ‘no, I want the full fat one’ (obviously, as the man needs as many calories as he can get). The girl said to me ‘oh, this is full fat but we just put the sign there because some people don’t want the fat’.  I was enraged and appalled.   Dieters put a lot of time and energy into counting calories and limiting their indulgences. False advertising is blatantly wrong, and while Dunkin Donuts was (for some bizarre reason) very transparent about their fraudulent labeling, if I asked for a low fat muffin, how likely is it that she would have told me they weren’t low fat? I’m guessing highly unlikely.

There has been a lot of research looking at whether or not calorie counts on chain menu items are accurate. By now, you can probably guess where this post is going…they’re not accurate. In fact, the counts of prepared foods have about 8% more calories than listed and restaurant dishes may contain up to 18% more.  Let’s put these percentages in context: someone on a 2000 diet (the average recommendation) would gain about 10 lbs. per year by eating only 5% more calories!

So, you might be wondering why is there so much variance in the calorie counts. Some chain restaurants use proportioned serving sizes.  In restaurants that don’t, the exact amount of ingredients used per dish varies.  Plus, the federal government allows up to a 20% margin of error of calorie counts, so don’t expect to see more accurate counts anytime soon.

BOTTOM LINE:  The experience I had at Dunkin Donuts is the responsibility of the management and is unlikely to be reflective of the company policy.  Calorie counts on packaged items or menus aren’t necessarily reliable, but they’re not worthless either.

Choose dishes at restaurants by making an educated guess as to the healthfulness of the meal and take all factors into account (i.e. the calorie count, the way the dish is prepared, the serving size, and extra sauces or condiments).  Though companies should provide the most accurate nutritional information possible, it’s an exact science that they can’t get exactly right every time.  Unless you want all your food to come in pre portioned plastic bags (no, thank you…).



  1. LA Times: Calorie Counts Aren’t Always Accurate, study finds
  2. TIME: Health: Dieters Beware: Calorie Counts are Frequently Off

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