A recent headline in the Huffington Post breathlessly importuned:
If you only read the headline, you might think this was some important information that might change your eating habits. If you read the article, you would discover a balanced set of conclusions from a fairly limited study.
First, the limitations. The study tested a total of 29 dishes at 10 chain restaurants, plus some frozen supermarket meals from nationally-distributed brands. That’s hardly a study of "restaurant food" in general.
Now the facts from the actual article:
- The only item that came up at 200% over the published calorie count was Denny’s "grits and butter." Denny’s responded to the study by pointing out the serving size for its calorie count was a four-ounce serving and the one used in the study was a 9.5 ounce serving. So you can pretty much discount the headline already.
- The average variation in calorie counts was nowhere near 200%; it was 18%. Or, according to my calculation, 1111.11% overstated.
- The Food and Drug Administration permits a variation of 20%, so even with the Denny’s grits and butter (which was, to repeat, apparently not an appropriate comparison), the food in the aggregate met the government standard.
- Reasonable minds–in the person of two professors of nutrition–can differ about whether the calorie numbers on restaurant menus should be relied on.
- Some of the variation can easily be explained by such simple things as the fact that a different amount of mayonnaise may come off the spatula on different sandwiches.
One thing I know is that the reporter, who in this case appears to have done a careful and balanced job, is not the headline writer, whose job is to grab attention. And grab attention the headline did. If you read the article, you learned a lot. If you only read the headline, you learned nothing and might have been misled.
For the record, when my name is on the byline, I wrote the headline, too.