(junk) food, health, and law:

What’s going on with restaurants and nutrition information these days?

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Nurse: I got thinking about it because I got circular ad with the new domino’s pasta bread bowl on the front– yep, it’s mac and cheese, or alfredo, or any number of other nutrious items, in a bread bowl. no joke. the nutrition info isn’t on the domino’s website.

Lawyer: Ewww.

NYC is also engaging in a “Cut the salt” campaign– which is related, but different. And more controversial, I think, because they’re directly urging restaurants to reduce the salt content in their foods, rather than forcing them to give consumers the tools to change. As the Tierney Lab on the Times points out, reducing salt is not beneficial to everyone, and may not even be as beneficial as we think to most people.

so, it would clearly (to me) be overstepping to forbid restaurants to sell food that’s bad for us (although they can’t sell food that is poisonous or contaminated–they can sell food that will kill you slowly). but i do think people have a right to know what they are eating– and not only if they dig hard to find out. with a few noteable exceptions (subway), you have to ask for/look for the information. It may be posted on a wall, or on the tray liner, but will you see that before you order? can the law make such strict rules that not only must it be available, but it must be on the actual menu?

If they can require it to be on the outside of packaged foods sold in supermarkets, convenience stores, etc — where, presumably, you can easily see it before you purchase the food — then I don’t see why not. Is it fundamentally different?

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 intentionally excluded restaurants from the requirements in order to allow states and local governments to create their own regulations. In the past, local governments haven’t gotten involved. Now, they are.

this is related to the soda tax question– (what, NYC, ahead of the curve?)– do people need help deciding what is best for them? well, yes, they do. but do they care? some people probably do. some definitely don’t. although it is very obvious to many of us that  eating mcdonalds for every meal is bad for you, and that alfredo in a bread bowl isn’t a good idea, some people dont’ get it. i’ve seen patients returning from open heart surgery have their wives bring them cheeseburgers, and when i’ve said that’s not a good idea, they’re like, what? why not ? putting the information a little more ” in your face” certainly wouldn’t hurt, and it could encourage restaurants to adopt more healthful practices.

So it can really help in two ways: by arming consumers with information at the outset and by encouraging restaurants (by requiring transparency) to adopt more healthful practices. No one’s telling the restaurants what they have to put or not put in their food — they’re just telling them that they have to tell us. Which seems reasonable

in 2008 in NYC, a federal judge ruled that NYC could force restaurants to post nutrition info (this applied to restaurants with 15 or more stores– clearly aimed at fast food). the debate was whether the government’s interest in protecting citizens was part of this equation vs. whether the restaurant owners had their first amendment rights violated.

The Second Circuit Court  ruled that First Amendment rights are not violated here — it’s a simple factual disclosure, and the state has a legitimate interest in preventing obesity, to which this measure is clearly tied. And I’m gonna go ahead and agree with them.

It does raise a certain question, though. Especially in small and high-end restaurants, things aren’t always measured out on a scale. Sauce is made with a dash of this and a sprinkle of that, and the salad is tossed with dressing to taste. They couldn’t tell you how many calories were in the damn thing if they wanted to.  So I’m not sure it would be feasible to take it past big chain establishments that cook with a set formula and mass-purchased ingredients. Is that fair to the big restaurants? One could also argue that smaller chains would be discouraged from changing their menus or offering a variety of choices, because calorie testing is expensive!  McDonald’s probably doesn’t care, but a 16-store chain probably does. Is there a good solution? Perhaps the government could authorize some sort of program to partially fund the calorie testing for small businesses.

Again, I want to emphasize that consumers really have nothing to complain about. If anyone is being infringed upon (and I don’t think they are), it’s the restaurants.

Because there are a few categories of customers, right?

1. People who are health-conscious and either would never order a bread bowl pasta thingy anyway or would only do so after finding the nutrition info.

2. People who don’t care at all, and will eat whatever they want, whether or not it’s labeled, because they never met a calorie they didn’t like.

3. People who don’t have a basic understanding of the relationship between certain types of food and health.

4. People who know that big bowls of cheese aren’t good for you, but gosh, it’s cold out, and I’m hungry, and, and…

A campaign like this is probably most effective with the #4 group. The #3 group can also benefit. And we might all benefit if restaurants either make everything a little lighter because they have to advertise it that way, or at least try harder to include a few things that aren’t appalling. Starbucks, no doubt fueled by their NYC requirements, has done  great job of advertising their lighter breakfast options, with calorie counts.

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