Counting Calories in Restaurant Food

More and more restaurant operators are counting calories – not in the food they consume, but in the food they sell. A number of local and federal regulations now require restaurant owners to publicly post the nutritional data of the food they serve, the most significant ones being those established by the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Those were originally set to become enforceable by the FDA in May 2017 and require chains with 20 or more locations to post their calorie counts on printed menus and menu boards, but a last-minute change pushed that deadline out another year. These requirements leave many of us wondering: How do you figure out how many calories are in restaurant food, anyway?

Hot Cuisine

Before we can discuss how calories are measured, we need to understand what a calorie is to begin with. It’s simply a unit of energy. Specifically, it’s the amount of heat required to raise a kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. Food is literally the fuel that powers our bodies, and calories are how we measure the amount of energy stored in that fuel.

The first scientist to try to and accurately measure the energy in food was Wilbur Atwater, a professor at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University. Back in the 19th century, Wilbur pioneered the use of a so-called calorimeter – a device that measures the amount of energy stored in a quantity of food by burning it, transmitting the heat produced to a volume of water, then measuring the total rise in temperature of the water. Refined versions of the calorimeter are still used in food laboratories today.

Atwater’s research resulted in the “Atwater System” of estimating the available calories in a quantity of food based on the weight of three macronutrients present. This system assigns an average value of 4 calories per gram to both proteins and carbohydrates and 9 calories per gram to fats. This system is still widely used by food manufacturers to determine what to print on their products’ nutrition labels.

Counting calories at home is fairly straightforward – just take a look at the Nutrition Facts printed on the package your food came in. The food served in restaurants doesn’t always come in such a conveniently labeled package. The Nutritional Labeling and Education Act that established the familiar black-and-white label exempted most “foods served or sold in restaurants” from having to carry that label. Restaurateurs who need to calculate the calories in their offerings without the assistance of nutritional labels have two options.

Menu Math

Small chains covered under the ACA restaurant menu labeling mandate and single-location operators who want to provide calorie counts as a service to their customers are likely to rely on the “database method” of tallying the calories in their menu items. This process involves determining the nutritional value of an item by adding up the calories in each of its constituent ingredients based on numbers pulled from a database. This method is time consuming, but it’s likely to be the most economical option for an operator without thousands of dollars to invest in the process.

For those who want to go it alone, the USDA database is a good place to start. It currently includes more than 184,000 food items ranging from generic ingredients like raw ground beef to brand-name prepared items. With enough patience, a dedicated individual should be able to determine the nutritional information of a restaurant menu item using data from this collection. There are also private companies that maintain their own databases and offer services to make the task of counting calories a little easier.

Big chains with the money to spend and operators who need a high degree of accuracy in their restaurant menu calories may opt to get science involved. A number of laboratories across the United States offer testing services that can determine the nutritional content of food samples that you send them. At more than $500 a sample, this method is cost prohibitive for smaller operators with just a handful of locations.

Tanner West
Tanner West

A dedicated festival-goer, Tanner West has seen more bands perform live in the middle of hay fields and city parks than most people have probably heard of. Raised on beans and taters, he recently renovated a home and three vintage sheds in the back woods of East Tennessee that serves as a quiet retreat for reading and ready base for hiking and camping trips. Despite being able to craft 500-word descriptions of restaurant equipment, Tanner is a man of few words who described the best meal he ever ate in one word: Coffee.

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