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In the ongoing battle against obesity in the United States, perceptions about responsibility have expanded beyond the overweight consumer to include restaurants and food suppliers. Frozen food manufacturers and restaurants, in response to this demand for responsible marketing, are starting to list the calorie counts of their products. That’s the good news.

But a recent study by the American Dietetic Association reveals that the calorie contents posted in fast food restaurants underestimate the totals by an average of 18 percent—that is, the food has a lot more calories than the charts show. The accuracy of frozen food labels, including those of brands that many dieters rely on like Healthy Choice, Lean Cuisine, and Weight Watchers, are a little better, but they still list totals around 8 percent lower than reality. (Perhaps surprisingly, Domino’s also misrepresented the calories in its pizza, but in the opposite direction. The pie actually had one-third fewer calories than reported.)

Frustrated calorie counters might expect some repercussions for such misinformation, but in truth, none of these acts are illegal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture permits a 20 percent margin of error in calorie counts—something that few consumers likely know.

Instead, people who count calories carefully in their efforts to control their weight make food choices based on the promotions that companies like Subway and KFC show them. As a key appeal in ads for the two-piece grilled chicken meal, KFC promises a lunch of less than 400 calories. But can consumers really believe this claim?

It appears that even as state and local officials consider legislation like New York City’s that demands restaurants post nutrition information, food companies find ways to mislead consumers about what their food adds to their diets. Buyer beware, indeed.

Discussion Questions:

1. Should restaurants and food manufacturers be allowed to list inaccurate calorie information?

2. Is there any ethical difference between Lean Cuisine underestimating its calorie count versus McDonald’s doing the same for its Big Mac, for example?

Michael Hill, “Counting Calories? You Can’t Always Rely on Frozen-Food Labels,” Boston Globe, January 8, 2010.