TUESDAY, Feb. 28, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Even when fast-food restaurants list calorie counts for menu items, diners may still have a hard time using the information to make healthy meal choices, researchers report.
In the study, the scientists examined the calorie listings for 200 food items on menu boards from 12 restaurant chains in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem.
Too often, calorie counts were listed for combo meals or meals intended to serve multiple people, or had wide ranges in what the calorie count might be.
For example, a bucket of chicken was listed as having 3,240 to 12,360 calories, but the menu board did not provide enough information for consumers to determine the number of pieces of chicken in a serving size.
A listing for a sandwich combo meal said it ranged from 500 to 2,080 calories. However, no information was provided on how to order within the lower range of this menu item.
Under federal law, restaurants with 20 or more locations must provide calorie data and additional nutritional information for menu items and self-serve foods. Although the calorie information complied with U.S. labeling rules, consumers may have a tough time making sense of much of it, the study found.
"Menu postings for individual servings are easily understood, but complex math skills are needed to interpret meals designed to serve more than one person," wrote study author Elizabeth Gross Cohn, an assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Nursing, and colleagues. "In some items, calories doubled depending on flavor, and the calorie posting did not give enough information to make healthier selections."
Researchers suggested that calorie listings should do more than merely comply, but take into account what level of "math literacy" is needed to make use of the information. In a revised system, a breakfast sandwich, for example, would be listed as, "Egg with ham/bacon/sausage: 350/550/750," so consumers could know exactly how many calories various options would add.
"In low-income communities with a high density of chain restaurants, and where educational attainment of consumers may be low, simplifying calorie postings and minimizing the math required to calculate calories would increase menu-board utility," the researchers wrote.
The study was published online Feb. 16 in the Journal of Urban Health.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers advice about dining out.