Here's a familiar scenario: You're hungry—but you're also ethically-minded—so you walk into Chipotle for a burrito filled with some of the chain's "food with integrity." Because summer's coming, you're watching your waistline and all that. You glance at the menu calorie counts and see that burritos clock in at roughly 400 to 1000.
With that in mind you stick to something spartan like chicken, beans, rice, and fresh tomato salsa—no cheese, no guac, no sour cream. That's gotta be close to the 400 mark, right? Sorry, but not even close.
According to Chipotle's online nutrition calculator, the burrito you just ordered weighs in at a hefty 820 calories. So what's actually in the 400-calorie range? That'd be a tortilla and a scoop of beans. Yep, the lower end of Chipotle's burrito calorie range is a concoction so pathetic that it doesn't even deserve the moniker "burrito."
Surprised by how off you were? Don't be, because you're not alone. According to a recently published study by marketing and public policy researchers from Duke and USC, Chipotle diners underestimate the number of calories in their burritos by about 21%—and the wide calorie range posted at many locations doesn't help matters much.
The Duke/USC team discovered this by actually standing outside a Chipotle in Durham, N.C., at lunchtime, where they asked people to guess the caloric content of the meals they'd just eaten. Some were asked to guess without being told a calorie range and some were given a range, but no matter what info was provided up front all the customers under-guessed their actual total. (The researchers backed up these findings with complementary experiments conducted online.)
In the immediate wake of the study's publication in the journal Public Health Nutrition, some media outlets chided Chipotle for being unconcerned about the nation's ever-growing waistline, though this wasn't the researchers' intent.
The true issue at hand here is that the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare) requires that chain restaurants with more than 20 locations post calorie counts for menu items. (Exactly when this rule will go into effect is still unclear—the latest estimates say maybe by the end of 2014.) When menu items are customizable (like a burrito or a pizza), the FDA has recommended chains employ calorie ranges, just like Chipotle does.
The problem is that posting ranges doesn't help people accurately assess calories. In particular, the Duke/USC researchers found ranges contribute to "misinterpretation of the meaning of the low end point of the energy range," as they write in the study. And the reason people get tripped up, they say, is not because Americans are idiots but because we reasonably assume the lowest calorie version must "refer to the 'healthiest' version of the customized item rather than a version that includes the fewest ingredients." So one might think substituting salsa for guacamole in a burrito is a good thing—but calorie-wise it's a little more complicated.
Bottom line: The range idea that the government recommends isn't helping Americans count calories. Naturally, the researchers have a solution to this problem: "We suggest that when restaurants present energy range information to consumers, they should explicitly define the meaning of the end points." That means posting the meager ingredients of that 400-calorie burrito as a base from which customers can mindfully choose their add-ons in crafting one of the 655,360 total meal combinations possible at Chipotle.
It sounds like a wise decision, and one that the FDA should add to its recommendations—though it's doubtful it will inspire Chipotle consumers to opt for that pathetic bean-and-tortilla burrito.