Study: Chain eateries fall short on nutrition

Denny's lemon pepper chicken with green beans and Denny's lemon pepper chicken with green beans and hash brown potatoes Photo Credit: Newsday/Joan Reminick (2010)

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You may be getting more than you bargained for when you eat at one of the more than 400 chain restaurants on Long Island, many of which fail to meet federal guidelines for nutrition.

A study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition looked at the content of 28,433 regular and 1,833 children's menu items, and reported that the vast majority of them did not meet recommendations for calories, sodium, fat and saturated fat set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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Some types of chains fared worse than others. "What we found was that family-style restaurants like Denny's, Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday, Friendly's and Olive Garden, have higher levels of sodium, fat and saturated fat than fast food restaurants," said the study's co-author, Helen Wu of the nonprofit Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.

Nutritional information provided online by chains reveals, for example, almost a day's worth of sodium (2,230 milligrams out of the FDA's 2,300 milligram limit) lurking in the 590-calorie wood-grilled peppercorn sirloin and shrimp at Red Lobster. And a half-day's worth -- 1,283 milligrams -- is packed into the 397-calorie "petite" zucchini cake at Ruby Tuesday.

While many chains now offer some healthier options, diners have to go online or verbally request nutritional statistics for most menu items.

And while a federal law, signed in 2010, requires eateries with 20 or more locations to feature nutritional information on menus, it remains a work in progress.

"The agency is working on the final rule," said Tamara Ward of the FDA's Office of Public Affairs.Nutritional numbers don't seem to matter to all diners. At lunch at Ruby Tuesday in Farmingdale Thursday, Patrick Feehancq of Massapequa had removed the bun from his cheeseburger, but said he wasn't counting sodium or calories. This he does only "occasionally -- depending on how close it is to my last doctor's appointment." And nutritional studies, he said, change almost daily. "Coffee used to be bad for you; now they say it's good."

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