A recent headline in the Huffington Post breathlessly importuned: 

 "Restaurant Food Has Up to 200% More Calories Than Advertised." 

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.