As of May 5, 2008, New York City was the first city to enforce calorie labeling in food service establishments with standardized menu food options that belong to a group of 15 or more establishments under the same name. To you and me, this translates as fast food chains ranging from McDonalds to Applebee’s. Despite desperate attempts by the New York State Restaurant Association, in an effort to fight obesity and help New Yorkers make better food choices, federal Judge Richard J. Howell ruled in favor of calorie posting. A study was conducted in Newark, New Jersey in 2007 to determine consumer’s behavior when ordering in fast food restaurants as a basis for the claim that New Yorkers are not being well enough informed of their choices when standing in line at these popular establishments. Many other cities have since followed suit, including places in California and Oregon as well as various college campuses across the nation. Great idea, right?
There’s only one problem—it doesn’t seem to be working with its intended audience. Namely, poorer communities in the five boroughs, such as the South Bronx, Harlem and Central Brooklyn, among others, chosen for their higher rates of obesity and diabetes. This study, conducted by professors at New York University and Yale, found that when consumers were questioned about their choices they reported that they had chosen items with lower calories. However, their receipts told a very different story; actually showing that people were ordering higher caloric items than before the law took effect.
There are plenty of articles and public health officials out there, which will argue this point vehemently and say that these studies have not given enough time for consumer behavior to change and that calorie posting has made a huge difference. One such article reported speaking to several different individuals as they waited to order at establishments such as TGI Fridays and Starbucks. The important fact that the journalist didn’t highlight was that with the exception of one individual, everyone questioned was a young twenty-something woman. Of all possible groups, young women out lunching with friends or grabbing a latte on their way to work are probably the least likely to a) be a poor, underprivileged Black or Hispanic consumer or b) admit to a reporter for a major news reporting agency that they don’t care about their figure or their choices. As a twenty-something young woman living in Manhattan, I assure you, I would respond the same way these women did. However, despite these facts, I do not believe that we should remove the calorie postings from food establishments and think that the pending national legislation for similar guidelines is probably a good idea. For the 15% who do seem to pay attention and make different choices, let’s keep helping them. Now for the more important question, how do we help the other 85%?
Calorie posting is a great start, but as Allysia Finley of the Wall Street Journal points out, “The bill would extend the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which requires food manufacturers to include nutritional information on their packaging, to restaurants. We all know how effective that law was. Since 1990, obesity has more than doubled.” These two policies, both valiantly created in order to help consumers, seem not to have helped. So, why is that? For starters, when is the last time you examined a nutrition label? Or knew the exact amount of grains you should consume for your age? I don’t know about you, but my knowledge of nutrition doesn’t extend far past that distant triangular food group chart I remember in my elementary school cafeteria. Since I believe my experience to be that of the average American, excepting registered dieticians and nutritionists, who actually thinks that this is clear?
Image from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) correct labeling of products. The previous image is found on the producer side of the website. On the consumer pages you can find the below image:
While neither image is entirely clear, the second one is far more user friendly. I consider myself a responsible consumer, but how often do we hunt through the FDA website to find such guides? Why didn’t the second version end up on our package labels instead of the labyrinthine first option? These nutrition labels are indicators of the broader disconnect between policymakers, Congress, and the average American consumer. Posting calories is a great idea, but what the hell is a calorie and what does it mean in terms of my overall nutrition? If I don’t know, why should the average mother of two in the South Bronx understand and interpret this information any better?
Calorie posting is a prodigious start on a long journey; a Band-Aid, if you will. For the 15% this Band-Aid may be sufficient and will protect the consumer, but drastic educational measures need to be implemented in our educational systems, community programs, social media, supermarkets and homes to help Americans understand the way a 1,290 calorie burger and fries fits into the broader scope of our overall health. Big, brightly colored nutrition label guides, such as the one above, need to be placed directly in our supermarket aisles. Before receiving government aide, parents should have to attend a basic workshop on nutrition and feeding their families. The act of hoping to fix a nationwide epidemic by posting calorie counts in fast food chains undermines the very belief system that put them there. If the average consumer’s food pyramid is covered with nothing but McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts and Burger King, instead of less processed, fresher food and a knowledge of better nutrition, knowing that the muffin has 600 calories and the cookie has 400 calories, isn’t enough to change America’s waistline.
1.NYC City Health Code: Post Calories Counts on Menus http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/cdp/calorie_compliance_guide.pdf
2. Calorie Postings Don’t Change Habits, Study Says http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/06/nyregion/06calories.html
3. New Yorkers Try to Swallow Calorie Sticker Shock http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/25464987/ns/health-diet_and_nutrition/t/new-yorkers-try-swallow-calorie-sticker-shock/#.Tn53puuE_w4
4. FDA guide to food labeling http://www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/ConsumerInformation/ucm078889.htm