What's in Your (Fast) Food?

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Starting January 1, diners at nearby chain restaurants will be able to check out the nutrition information of their meal before placing an order. A new regulation passed by the King County Board of Health will require all restaurants with 15 or more locations nationwide to display calories counts and other nutritional information (including grams of sodium and saturated fat) directly on or near their menus.

New York City has a similar regulation already in place. As more Americans eat more of their weekly meals at restaurants, a debate is arising over how much information diners need to have to be health-conscious – and how much responsibility restaurants should take to provide it.

According to this article in the P-I, a majority of Seattle residents polled say they support the regulation. But many restaurant owners and diners argue that requiring the nutritional display is tantamount to an invasion of privacy, and that people with dietary restrictions already know what they can and cannot eat.

The Board of Health, however, counters that their assumptions about food aren't always accurate. More from the article:

There's a surprising piece of logic behind the new King County restaurant labeling law: Studies suggest most customers actually don't realize how good or bad for them the food might be.
Out of 500 Washington voters in a survey commissioned by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Heart Association before the regulation was passed, fewer than 10 percent could identify the lowest- or highest-calorie menu items at popular chain restaurants. At Quiznos, for instance, only 4 percent guessed that the tuna melt, at 1,420 calories, had more calories than the Steakhouse Beef Dip or the Baja Chicken with Bacon Sub. Most people thought a McDonald's Big Mac had more calories than a chocolate shake. (The shake has 1,160, more than double the amount of the burger.)
So far, there are only anecdotal and small-scale studies to suggest whether the laws will change consumers' behavior. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is supporting more long-term research.

Another piece of evidence: this Cornell University study indicates that almost everyone underestimates the number of calories in a given meal … and the bigger the meal, the more they underestimate.

Personally, I feel that the new regulation is one way of reporting the backstory of our food. But in addition to calories, I would be happy to see more restaurants, grocery stores and other meal sources reporting accurate information about where and how food was grown (find more on this topic in our archives). The backstory will be a useful tool to help diners make healthier choices for themselves and the planet in the face of aggressive marketing, peer pressure and other social elements that skew perception.

Photo credit: flickr/jslander, Creative Commons license.

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