ATLANTA -- When you cook your dinner at home, you've got a pretty good idea what you're getting. But when you eat out, it's often hard to tell just how much butter or oil is in the meal.
As part of the Affordable Healthcare Act, the FDA is working on rules that would require restaurants with 20 or more locations, to provide nutritional information to their customers. But many restaurants eager to meet the needs and curiosities of their customers have already started to post the data online.
11Alive wanted to know the accuracy of that information. So we picked five entrees at five restaurants, packed them as instructed by the FDA, USDA certified lab we hired and shipped them overnight for testing.
The results surprised us so much, we decided to test them all again. The results:
Taco Mac's Kenmore hamburger and fries: 1790 calories according to its website with 113 grams of fat. Our first lab tests showed it had 1491 calories with 87 grams of fat. Our second order had 2 oz. less food, and fewer calories. It came in at 1100 calories and 29g of fat.
From Applebee's we ordered the Napa Chicken with Portebello Mushrooms. It is supposed to have 450 calories and 13 grams of fat. Our first test came in under with only 382 calories and 11.6 grams of fat. Our second dish came with a much larger piece of chicken and more vegetables. In all it was 6 oz. more of food and more calories. It came in at 569 calories, 19.7 grams of fat.
From Chili's we ordered the 6oz sirloin steak with broccoli off of their lighter fare menu section. It is supposed to have 250 calories, and 7 grams of fat. Our first test found 334 calories and 17 grams of fat. The second meal, which for some reason came with six additional ounces of broccoli, had 592 calories and 29.5 grams of fat.
Fresh to Order has an interactive nutrition counter, but we couldn't get the numbers to add up. We ordered the ¾ Pork Loin entrée with Sweet Potato Mash. The restaurant says it should be about 664 calories with 24 grams of fat. Our first test came up with 1284 calories and 67 grams of fat. When we ordered our second dish we were served 1.5 oz less food. As expected, the calories were also lower, 1165, and 41 grams of fat.
At Tin Drum we ordered the Mango Chicken. The website says it has 660 calories with 6 grams of fat. Our test found 1230 calories with 25 grams of fat. The second dish had 3 oz. less food, and as a result was only 1107 calories with 20 grams of fat.
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The founder of Tin Drum was truly surprised by our results and agreed to sit down and talk with us about them.
"We need to go back and revisit all of the ingredients that we use when we were coming up with our calculations and then what ingredients have changed," said Stephen Chan.
While our results came from a chemical analysis, basically a lab test after it the food was cooked, Steven Chan says his restaurant's data is more theoretical, looking at the labels of raw ingredients to figure out what the end result will be.
Taco Mac says it does something similar. It's an FDA approved method, even though our test show the results can be significantly different. Still, Chan says our test was fair.
"It's absolutely fair. This is the only way that we can improve. Because without the challenges we will just think that we're doing a great job every day and there's no room for improvement and I think it's wrong," said Chan.
Even Fresh to Order's corporate chef and chief operating officer, Jesse Gideon, offered his apologies and promised to look into why the numbers were so different, than the data he obtained from his own independent lab.
"The most important part of our business is our wonderful guests. We care deeply for them and our primary goal is to give them a incredible dining experience. Although we are not required by law, we have always voluntarily provided nutritional information as an added service to our guests. We are not registered dieticians, therefore we have always used a third party to conduct our nutritional analysis. We are very concerned about your findings and will investigate fully to correct any problem found. Thank you so much for pointing this matter out to us. An extra set of eyes is always appreciated. We absolutely want to get this right for our guests and are committed to doing so."
Even after the new FDA guidelines go into effect, Fresh to Order and Tin Drum, will not likely be required to provide nutritional information because they do not have the minimum required locations. Both say they will continue giving their customers the data because they feel its important.
One challenge we noticed for any restaurant trying to provide accurate data, is consistency. The portion size at Chili's, and even the recipe at Applebee's, seemed to vary quite a bit. The results, were more calories and fat than expected.
In a written statement from Applebee's a spokesperson said, "We conduct independent tests each year in our restaurants and provide training materials to our franchisees to ensure the proper proper preparation of our menu items. Of course, some variability is expected due to differences in ingredients and preparation, as well as substitutions. Because we want our Guests to be aware of this possibility, we print this fact on all of our menus."
Chili's echoed the sentiment saying, "At Chili's Grill & Bar, we strive to ensure the nutritional information we provide to our guests is accurate based on standardized recipes across our restaurants nationwide. We utilize independent labs to test the nutritional content of all of our menu items and the results included in this report are significantly higher than our findings. While menu item ingredient information is based on standardized product recipes, variations in nutritional content may occur due to in-restaurant preparation, portion size variances and guest customization of menu items, among other factors. To the extent that any of the items ordered may not have been prepared to our current standards, we offer our apologies. At Chili's, we are continuously working to reinforce these menu standards and train team members on item preparation."
But customers question if the information isn't accurate, what's the point of providing it?
"I would expect a little fudging, a little bit of an inaccuracy but they seem to be, not even correlate with the claimed level and that's concerning," said Dr. Caroline Abruzese.
Still, she says some information really is better than none and is excited about new federal regulations to make restaurant chains provide the information upfront.
"Their job is to sell food and we go and we rate and judge with out palates and that has caused them gto and add more sugar and fat and flavorful things, but we haven't had a chance to balance that vote with the knowledge that okay, maybe this tastes a little better but if it's 400 calories more maybe I wont' get that," said Abruzese.
Given the wide variance, she suggests looking at the numbers as a starting point, If a dish says it has six grams of fat, consider that the minimum. If it's too much, pick something else.
She also recommends drinking a large glass of water, perhaps with a fiber packet in it, to fill your stomach before you go to the restaurant. If you're not as hungry when you walk in the door, she says you're more likely to make a better food choice.
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