Got an extra five minutes to kill (on top of the five you’re already killing reading this)? Then go watch Casey Neistat’s New York Times Op-Doc short video Calorie Detective. Seriously.
Yes, seriously. Not only because it’s entertaining, but in less time than it takes to order a Big Mac, Neistat manages to call into question one of the very things that public health advocates have been hailing as a victory in their fight against obesity: the evermore ubiquitous calorie count.
The Food and Drug Administration has long required manufacturers to list the calories per serving on the packaged food items you buy in the grocery store, and several years ago New York City began requiring calorie counts on most restaurant menus. Last year, McDonald’s starting listing calories on its menus nationwide, no doubt to get a jump on a provision of the Affordable Care Act that will require all restaurant chains with more than 20 locations to do the same.
But are those numbers accurate?
OK, so if you haven’t gone to watch the video yet, here’s the summary: Neistat buys a day’s worth of food (a bodega muffin, Chipotle burrito, Starbucks Frappuccino, vegan tofu sandwich, and a Subway 6-incher). He then takes his haul to the Obesity Research Lab at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York, where it all undergoes an unappetizing process of liquefaction so it can be tested in something called a “Calorimeter.”
This is not something you’re likely to do at home.
Only one item, the Subway sandwich, came in below its advertised calorie count (350.8 calories vs. 360 stated). Everything else was over, whether by a little (the Frappuccino had about 23 extra calories) or a lot (the calorie count for the “healthy” vegan tofu sandwich came in at more than double its stated calories).
All in all, when Neistat adds up the total amount of calories for all the items he bought and compares it to the total amount of calories he thought he was eating based on the numbers advertised, the difference is anything but insignificant: almost 550 calories. As he points out, that’s like eating a whole Quarter Pounder with cheese without even knowing it.
Neistat readily admits his “study” is far from scientific: Not only did he test just five different foods, but he also tested only a single sample of each. But it does underscore the fact that no one—not the FDA nor any independent government agency—actually tests food to see whether those calorie counts are accurate.
Sure, Chipotle is never going to get away with saying its monster burrito has the same number of calories as, say, an apple. But an extra 120 calories here, an extra 50 there—it adds up.
As Neistat writes: “If I unknowingly consumed those extra calories every day, in a week I would put on an extra pound of body weight. Not good.”
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Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council. He writes about food, sustainability and the environment.