Perceptions vs Reality - Chain Restaurant Food

Driving down nearly every street in America, the options are endless. You can “Eat Fresh,” “Have It Your Way,” or even “Live Mas.” The number of street corners filled with golden arches and fast service has even led some to dub the U.S. the “Fast Food Nation.” Hitting up a fast-food joint may be cheap and convenient, but are we truly aware of how many calories we’re putting into our bodies?

On any given day, nearly 40% of Americans will eat fast food, and despite chains offering items on the lighter side, obesity remains a common, serious, and deadly problem. In 2018, the FDA began requiring restaurants to post the calories of menu items, ensuring consumers can make fully informed decisions.

But has the labeling worked? Are Americans aware of how many calories they consume when eating popular items at chain restaurants, or are their guesses completely off? We asked over 970 people to estimate the calorie counts for various items to see how accurate their perceptions were. Do you know what’s in your food? Keep reading to find out.

Make a Good Guess

How Far Off

Burgers, fries, and fried chicken are among the most popular fast-food items in America, yet consumers still can’t hit the nail on the head when it comes to counting calories. Respondents came pretty close to estimating the calories in a cheeseburger, with the average estimate just 21 calories too high. Estimating the calorie count of fried chicken and fries was more of a challenge, though – while Americans overestimated the calories in fried chicken by 116, they underestimated the calories of fries by 101.

Cheesecake was both the highest-calorie item included in our study and the item most underestimated. While cheesecake actually has around 720 calories, 87% of Americans underestimated the cost of a slice, thinking the dessert came with an average of just 421 calories. Even taking the lowest-calorie cheesecakes from The Cheesecake Factory, Americans still underestimated the calorie content significantly.

Do Your Research

What's on the Menu graph

Most people don’t want to think about how many calories come with their food, especially when looking for a quick bite to eat. While 71% chose to remain ignorant of calorie information, nearly 30% of people took researched nutritional information.

Even if people choose not to do research, the FDA’s regulation regarding calorie displays means every chain with at least 20 locations will have the nutritional information handy for consumers. While this may turn a favorite dish into a bummer, 87% of Americans supported the idea of displaying calories on a menu.

Noticing calories is easier at some restaurants like Chipotle, where the numbers are displayed in the same font size as the menu items, but at others, the calorie count can seem more like fine print. Despite differences in size, 73% of respondents noticed the calorie information, and 71% were even influenced, opting for a lower-calorie item.

Different Kind of Nutritional Label

Top Foods for Each Attribute chart

Behind all the salty and sugary goodness is much more than just a ton of calories. While it can be difficult for the average consumer to truly understand what monounsaturated fat is or which cholesterol is OK to consume, some foods come with accepted labels. Cheeseburgers were the most likely to be described as “unhealthy” , with those who overestimated calories more likely to classify them as such.

Over half of overestimators also labeled nearly every other food item as “unhealthy.” However, both under- and overestimators agreed that chicken salad was the least deserving of this negative description – around three-fourths of respondents described chicken salad as “healthy,” “natural,” and “fresh.”

Overall, those who underestimated the number of calories were more likely to use positive words to describe food items.

Frequent Foodies

Seasoned Professionals

Between 2013 and 2016, researchers estimated that 84.8 million adults consumed fast food on any given day. But even frequent foodies struggled to estimate calories accurately. While it would make sense that those with the most exposure to menu items and associated calories would provide the closest estimates, the opposite actually occurred.

Those dining out at most once a week underestimated calories by an average of 33 calories. However, as frequency increased, so too did the amount of underestimation – those eating out four to seven times per week underestimated the calories consumed by 108 calories. The difference between perception and reality was even greater when looking at specific food items. Frequent diners underestimated the calories in cheesecake by a whopping 355 calories and were more likely to underestimate all foods except for fried chicken.

You Are What You Eat

Fast-food chains have been around for decades, but the food industry is always changing. Millennials have turned the focus towards more healthy foods, and while fast food may follow suit by offering lighter options, Americans still don’t know what they’re consuming. While calorie displays can bring nutritional value to consumers’ attention and influence them to choose healthier items, eating out can cost more than calories if people don’t pay attention.

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To conduct this study, we surveyed 977 respondents. They were shown one picture for each of the following foods that can be found at chain restaurants: chicken salad, french fries, fried chicken, cheeseburger, cheesecake, and milkshake. We compared the respondents’ calorie estimations with the actual caloric information listed on the chain restaurant websites.

We ensured that respondents paid attention and read the questions and answers the whole way through by asking an attention-check question. If they failed it, they were disqualified and excluded from the survey.

A 10% margin of error was created to see who was close. For example, someone who estimated within 33 calories of the actual calorie count for fried chicken was categorized as being close.

For “Percentage Under- vs. Overestimating Calories,” percentages for fries, chicken salad, and cheeseburgers don’t add up to 100% because a small handful of respondents accurately estimated the number of calories in each food.

Fair Use Statement

With this study, we discovered that the more you eat out, the more likely you are to say calorie information on menus sways your food choices. Seeing our study may sway your followers as well. Feel free to share this study with them, as long as it is for noncommercial purposes and you link back to this page, so they see the full scope of our research.