Health & Wellness

Can you trust the calorie counts on restaurant menus?

In his new book, "Rossen To the Rescue: Secrets to Avoiding Scams, Everyday Danger, and Major Catastrophes,'' TODAY national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen relates his personal weight-loss struggle and reveals how he lost nearly 30 pounds.

Get Jeff Rossen's new book, “Rossen to the Rescue,” here.

Rossen continues to weigh himself every morning and, like millions of Americans, reads food labels closely, including the calorie counts on restaurant menus. But just how reliable are those numbers?

The Rossen Reports team visited popular restaurants, including Cheesecake Factory, Panera Bread, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Applebee's, Outback Steakhouse, California Pizza Kitchen, Shake Shack and Chick-fil-A, and ordered one dish off each of their menus. But instead of eating the food, they sent it a certified food testing lab to see if the actual calorie counts corresponded to the ones listed on the menus. The results were revealing.

NBC News reached out to the restaurants for their response to the results. Shake Shack did not respond, but the others did.

Chick-fil-A told NBC News "there is some natural variation in calorie counts and other nutritional information" and that each sandwich may differ "based on factors like the exact size of the chicken breast and the amount of breading."

Applebee's said they have "robust programs to maintain consistency" when preparing food and "regularly conduct ... sample testing across the country in an effort to continually improve."

Red Lobster said they "strive for consistency," telling NBC News, "we appreciate you bringing this to our attention." In response to this report, they revised their menu, saying, "We have changed our nutritional information on this item."

Nutritionist Keri Glassman told Rossen, "If the calories are going to be there, they should be accurate."

The FDA gives restaurants leeway: There's no regulation on how much the calories listed on a menu can vary from what's actually in the dish — they only have to be "reasonable." Most of the restaurants say they calculate calorie counts based on an average.

To suggest a topic for an upcoming investigation, visit the Rossen Reports Facebook page.

TOP