Chain restaurants' calorie counts put to the test

9:41 AM, May 1, 2013   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Have you ever wondered if the calorie count posted at chain restaurants is correct?

KARE 11 hired a company to test seven items that many of you have likely bought at one point or another.

When President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, it had a section in it that called for the Food and Drug Administration to regulate that all restaurants, with 20 or more locations, post the caloric content of menu items in plain view of the customers.

We put the regulation process to the test using some common items at some popular restaurants.

We chose the following, in no particular order.

  1. Caribou Coffee, Medium Latte with 2% milk and whipped cream
  2. Dairy Queen, Medium Oreo Blizzard
  3. McDonald's Happy Meal, 4 piece Chicken McNuggets with milk, fries and apples
  4. Otis Spunkmeyer Muffin, Wild Blueberry
  5. Chipotle Chicken Burrito (With white rice, black beans, sour cream, cheese and guacamole)
  6. Subway Cold Cut Combo, 6 inch on 9-grain wheat bread with no sauces or cheese
  7. Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pizza, Pepperoni
    To do the testing we hired Minnesota Valley Testing Laboratories based in New Ulm.

To conduct the tests, each food was weighed at the lab and then put in a food processor to break it down. That broken down substance was then tested by what is called a bomb calometer.

The coffee was tested first. Caribou posts that the caloric content for a medium latte with 2 percent milk and whipped cream should be 300 calories, but in our test it came in at 156.

Next was the medium DQ Oreo Blizzard. It was supposed to be 680 calories, but in our test it came back with only 560 calories. Dean Peters handles communications for the American Dairy Queen Corporation so we asked him, why this discrepancy?

"Dairy Queen products are hand prepared by employees at each individual location using quality ingredients. Hand-prepared products create variability due to variation in adherence to standardized preparation procedures and ingredient requirements. Seasonal and manufacturer variations may also affect nutritional information."

Our next item, the 4-piece-McNugget Happy Meal with milk, fries and apple slices. The total caloric content of that meal, according to McDonald's was to be 405 calories. Our tests had it weighing in at 463 calories.

McDonald's USA Senior Director of Nutrition, Cindy Goody said this about the results.

"The nutrition information for McDonald's foods and beverages is derived from testing conducted in accredited laboratories, published resources or from information provided from McDonald's suppliers. The nutrition information is based on standard product formulations and serving sizes. All nutrition information is based on average values for ingredients from McDonald's suppliers throughout the U.S. and is rounded to meet current US FDA NLEA guidelines. Variation in serving sizes, preparation techniques, product testing and sources of supply, as well as regional and seasonal differences may affect the nutrition values for each product. In addition, product formulations change periodically. Customers should expect some variation in the nutrient content of the products purchased in our restaurants."

The fourth item tested is something that can be found at a gas station or a vending machine -- the Otis Spunkmeyer's Wild Blueberry muffin. On the package it list the entire muffin's caloric content as 400 calories. In our test it came back slightly less than that with 395 calories.

The fifth item was the Chipotle restaurant chain's Chicken Burrito with white rice, black beans, sour cream, cheese and guacamole. The company says that burrito combination should weigh in at 1, 145 calories. Our test had it at 1, 170 calories.

Chris Arnold is a communications specialist with Chipotle and said this about the discrepancy.

"Discrepancies of that kind are most likely related to the fact that all of our food is made specifically to order. Because we don't have pre-made menu items and all of our food is made and served to order in our restaurants, there is the possibility that portion sizes will vary a little (up or down), and that can impact on total calories."

For test number six, we chose the Subway Cold Cut Combo, 6 inch, on 9-grain wheat bread with no cheese or sauces. It fared well as Subway said it would have 370 calories but on our trip and test it only contained 350.

Finally, the Pizza Hut Pepperoni Personal Pan Pizza was tested. This one also a bit of a surprise because Pizza Hut said it would have 620 calories while in our test it only came in at 606.

So there you have it, seven tests on very popular items with more coming in under on calories than over.

And in terms of that law on having the restaurants post the calories, we also asked the FDA how that was going to be enforced.

Shelley Burgess said that is a work in progress.

"We have gotten a number of comments on compliance issues when this rule was made and right now we are in the process of developing final regulations," Burgess said.

(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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