Most big chain restaurants now put nutrition information—calories, fat and sodium—on their menus and websites. But just how accurate are these numbers? Does the meal you're served match the nutritional profile promised?
Consumer Reports decided to find out. For its May issue, the magazine's secret shoppers went to a dozen well-known restaurants and fast-food chains, from Applebee's to Wendy's, and ordered 17 different items. They tested the same item from three restaurants in each chain.
The good news: In most cases, the published information was accurate.
"We found that you can usually trust the figures you see," said editor Leslie Ware. "On average, most of them were telling the truth."
Only two of the 17 dishes Consumer Reports analyzed in the lab had a fat or calorie count that was higher than promised at all three locations.
Olive Garden's (owned by Darden Restaurant) Lasagna Primavera with Grilled Chicken was supposed to have 420 calories and 15 grams of fat. The samples the magazine tested had 508 to 585 calories and 25 to 32 grams of fat. That's more than the 20 percent variance that's generally considered acceptable with nutrition information.
The company told TODAY it takes great care to provide accurate nutrition information. In an email, Olive Garden explained that an error had been made in the initial testing of the entree when it was introduced last October.
"As soon as we caught this error, we retested the dish… and updated the nutritional information on our website with the new data in late December," the email said. "Unfortunately, though, the information was not updated everywhere and one page on our website still contained the old nutritional data. We have since corrected this, too."
Olive Garden told TODAY that Consumer Reports never contacted them to confirm the numbers and did not give them an opportunity to respond.
"If they had, we would have been able to provide them with accurate data," they said.
Consumer Reports' tests also showed the Chicken on the Barbie at Outback Steakhouse had more fat than advertised. The website claim was 7 grams of fat. The magazine's analysis showed 10 to 13 grams.
"Nutritional information on our website has been verified by a recognized independent laboratory," said Outback spokesperson Cathie Koch in an email to TODAY. "Our food is made from scratch daily using fresh ingredients. The variance in the report may be due to a larger container of sauce used for Take-Away."
This Is Not an Exact Science
Obviously, the calorie and fat content of the food you are served will not be exactly the same as what's advertised on the menu or company website, but it should be in the ballpark.
That was not always the case with Denny's Fit Slam breakfast. At two of the three locations Consumer Reports visited, the Fit Slam generally matched the advertised claim of 390 calories and 12 grams of fat. But at the third location, it was way off the mark: 494 calories and 19 grams of fat.
Denny's did not respond to requests for comment.
The National Restaurant Association says its members take extensive measures to make sure the nutritional information they provide customers is as accurate as possible.
"But there are variations due to portion size and individual restaurant preparation, as well as the inherent variability of the food itself," noted Joy Dubost, director of Nutrition at the National Restaurant Association.
The numbers will also be off if the portion size of the meal you're served varies significantly from what is on the menu.
Consumer Reports found that serving sizes at the same chain "ran the gamut" from location to location. For example, the Fettuccine Alfredo at the three Olive Garden restaurants visited weighed roughly 14 to 22 ounces.
The editors said portion sizes also "varied widely" at Applebee's, Denny's and Red Lobster.
National Menu Labeling on the Way
Menu labeling is required in California and Vermont, and in a few major cities: New York City, Seattle and Philadelphia. It will soon be mandatory at chain restaurants—those with 20 or more locations—nationwide.
The Food and Drug Administration is expected to issue rules about nutrition labeling by this fall. They would take effect in late 2014.
"Over time, this will help people make more informed choices and cut calories," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "And just as importantly, it provides an incentive for the restaurants to reformulate their items."