On Your Side Investigators Get The Skinny On The Light Menu

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(Memphis) So-called healthier options at restaurants promise fewer calories, carbs, and fat.

The question is, are you really helping your waistline when you order them?

Whether you're driving through, or sitting down, every restaurant menu seems to be offering lighter options these days.

"It's been a huge change which I really enjoy," said Memphian Diane Chavis.

Fewer calories, carbs, and less fat means more options for customers.

"They are doing a better job. You know, like with the Happy Meals, offering the fruit, offering more side salads," says registered dietitian Christy Davis of Baptist Memorial Hospital Memphis.

Federal law now requires restaurants of a certain size to post nutritional information.

The idea is that customers can clearly see what they're getting.

"Now when I go, I will look at it," said Memphis resident Eunice Fair.

"I'll do the snack wrap from McDonald's now instead, based on the assumption that it's healthier," said Kadeem Myrick, whom WREG chatted with at a local coffee shop.

But do these assumed smarter choices help consumers save on calories?

The On Your Side Investigators discovered sometimes you're not getting what you pay for, and in other cases, you're getting more than you bargained for!

WREG tested ten menu items from fast food and casual dining restaurants to get the skinny on the light menu.

At McDonald's, we selected a Happy Meal since the company has now added fruit.

The meal we ordered came with four nuggets, fries and apple slices.

We also ordered a medium fry from McDonald's, along with a medium salted fry from Burger King and a medium Satisfry.

At Wendy's, we chose a Homestyle Chicken Sandwich and the Ultimate Chicken Grill.

At Taco Bell, our team ordered an XXL Grilled Stuft Burrito along with one from their Cantina menu, both steak.

From the casual dining side, it was the Cedar Salmon from Applebee's and Sizzling Chicken and Spinach from TGI Friday's.

The On Your Side Investigators carefully sealed, packed, and shipped the food to an accredited lab for nutritional analysis.

The lab conducted the tests blind - they didn't know which restaurants the items came from.

The tests examined total calories, total fat, and carbohydrates, along with protein.

The lab used a method called proximate testing.

We shared the results with Davis.

She said, "I wasn't surprised. Just being a dietitian and knowing what's in some of these lighter, lighter options."

Click To Read Test Results

The lighter options like the grilled chicken sandwich and Cantina Burrito were lower in calories and fat than their traditional counterparts.

Several items also came back with lower calories than what's posted on the menu, including the Cedar Salmon, Chicken and Spinach, and all of the french fries.

"I guess I'm glad to know they're not underestimating it," local resident Joshua Bakke said.

Myrick added, "I don't feel deceived by what they've been telling me."

But wait until we tell you the whole story!

"I was actually surprised that what they posted was 100 calories less than what your tests found," said Davis.

She was talking about the Happy Meal, which we found had combined total of 419 calories, compared to the 305 we added up from the McDonald's menu.

"Then you've got 24 grams of fat, I mean, that's a lot for a child," Davis said about the amount of fat for one meal.

Speaking of, both burritos lead the pack in calories, carbs, and fat.

The Cantina came back higher in all those categories, compared to what Taco Bell posts.

It even has more carbs than the Grilled Stuft.

"And they're marketing that as a lighter item, so you know the average consumer is going to consume that verses option B because they're marketing it is lighter," Davis said.

Even with the grilled chicken sandwich, you're only saving some carbohydrates.

The fried chicken sandwich we tested also came back with higher calories and fat than what's posted by Wendy's.

The Satisfries we tested came back with a higher carb count than the regular fry tested from Burger King.

Davis said in her opinion, here's the real skinny: "It's just a little bit lighter than the original. You're still going to have some higher calories, fat, carbohydrates, sugar and things like that, not to mention the sodium content."

The On Your Side Investigators also got smaller serving sizes of nearly every item compared to what the restaurants post.

We were shorted on the fries, sandwiches, and burritos.

Myrick said, "I was just starting to look at that, so the serving size I assume would play a huge difference in a lot of the readings."

There was a noticeable difference in some cases.

We did the math and if we'd had the correct serving size, nearly every item would have come back with higher calories, carbs, and fat compared to the posted content.

Neither TGI Friday's or Applebee's provided a serving size for the items WREG ordered.

Click To Check Out The Chart

"It definitely makes you think twice about what you eat at a fast food establishment," Bakke said.

Davis says some recent research shows nutritional content posting isn't a driving factor in consumer behavior.

She said, "Some customers still aren't basing their choices off the calories, protein, carbohydrates listed in that menu."

Some people WREG spoke with agreed.

Bakke said, "Myself personally, I don't tend to eat fast food as often so, when I do, I go, OK, I'm just going to eat whatever I really want."

"If I have a taste for it, I go ahead and say, well, OK, I don't care anything about calories," added Fair.

Davis says for consumers who do rely on nutritional postings to choose healthier selections, "It's going to be lighter in something, but it's still not the best option out there."

Click For Restaurant Responses

According to a Taco Bell spokesperson, the company does not market the Cantina menu as a lighter option, but rather "gourmet inspired" with "layers of flavor."

He said he does understand why some consumers might perceive it that way, but all customers have the option to order their food "fresco" style.

A McDonald's representative said, "We are not in a position to comment on the test conducted for this story without knowing specific factors and methodology."

She pointed out that nutrition information is based on "average values," as did reps for Burger King, Wendy's and TGI Friday's, who also said it's normal for variations to occur.

WREG also asked Burger King specifically about its marketing for the Satisfry, which is based on a 70g serving, a size that isn't an option on the menu.

A spokesperson said, "The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USDA) lists only one serving size, 70 grams, for reference amount customarily consumed per serving (RACC) with regard to french fried potatoes."

Applebee's said they post a disclaimer directly on restaurant menus explaining, "variability in ingredients and preparation is expected."

**Please note, WREG's data was gathered over the past two months.  Some of the restaurants have updated their nutritional information online. The lab WREG used to conduct the testing is ISO/IEC accredited and uses AOAC, FDA, USDA or equivalent recognized methods for all analyses.