Monday, October 13, 2008

NYC Menu Labeling

A colleague and I are working on an article about New York City menu labeling laws--if you live in NYC, you probably already noticed calorie counts posted on in-store menu boards. Menu labeling is now a law--restaurants with 15 or more locations nationwide are required to post calorie counts.

For now, I'd like to look at a number of assumptions inherent to menu labeling laws.

1)Consumers don’t already have an idea about the caloric content of their favorite foods: Those most likely to respond to calorie postings likely already have a sense about the nutritional information of the foods they’re eating. They’ve read the pamphlets or scoured the internet in order to reduce their caloric intake. In-store menu labeling may encourage consumers to base more and more of their food decisions on caloric amounts, leading to greater food restriction, a pathway to clinical eating disorders. For those who already struggle with eating disorders, menu labeling can be emotionally triggering, as patients in recovery work quite diligently to remove their shift from calorie counting.

2)Consumers are concerned about caloric content and will choose lower calorie foods: Another subset of consumers represents those that typically eat higher calorie diets, enjoy their dining out, and aren’t particularly interested in calorie counting. Customers at fast food restaurants, for instance, are often driven by taste and cost, and likely won’t be swayed by caloric labeling.

3)Reducing calories is the only way to promote healthier eating: Another pitfall with caloric labeling is that only the calorie count is posted. Therefore, there is a potential for consumers to choose lower calorie foods, while disregarding other variables such as protein, carbohydrate, fat, and fiber content, along with the host of vitamins and minerals that certain foods contain. An eight-ounce glass of skim milk is more caloric than a similarly sized serving of Diet Soda, but the milk is more nutritious.

4)Consumers will be able to sustain a lower calorie diet, requiring them to sacrifice what they prefer to eat: It’s estimated that over 95% of all diets fail, as humans do not respond well to the experience of deprivation—whatever weight is lost through dieting is often regained (and then some) as we compensate for a period of deprivation. If we make food choices based on caloric information, rather than on what we crave, we’ll begin to feel deprived, just as dieters do. Food choices based on food cravings (“I feel like a cheese sandwich for lunch” vs. “I should have a salad”), as part of a balanced overall diet, are more likely to be associated with healthier attitudes toward food and reduced incidence of overeating.

23 comments:

Suzanne Nam said...

read it, ignore it, do whatever you want with it. it's just more information. why is it harmful to know something???

himawari said...

Therefore, there is a potential for consumers to choose lower calorie foods, while disregarding other variables such as protein, carbohydrate, fat, and fiber content, along with the host of vitamins and minerals that certain foods contain.

So it's really just the calories that are posted, and not ingredients and nutritional information? This is incredibly problematic. As long as the labels are in a place where disordered people trying to recover can ignore them if necessary, the idea of labels seems okay; however, calories mean almost nothing health-wise in and of themselves (other than the fact that too few or too many are generally not a good idea, but for a non-disordered person, judging how much to eat generally shouldn't be a problem). I would love to know what type of oils are used in foods in restaurants (coconut? olive? canola? palm?) and just how much overly processed junk is in these restaurant foods (high fructose corn syrup, etc). This is especially important for people with allergies. I don't understand how calorie counts with NO other information are going to do anything except make people feel bad about eating and/or needlessly restrict.

Tiffany said...

I think it's great that you and your colleague are doing something about this. I am sick and tired of our cultural obsession with "good" and "bad" foods. When will people realize that there are no "bad" foods?

Actually, let me take that back. There are bad foods. Foods that contain melamine where powdered milk was supposed to be, are served and handled by people who didn't bother to wash their hands, foods with e. coli, botulism, and norovirus in them, foods that are soaked with harmful pesticides, foods that do not have potential allergens listed in the ingredients list...

These are the bad foods I would like to see the government warn me about.

azusmom said...

Tiffany, AMEN!!!!! (Standing and cheering!)

The reason this can be problematic is for those us us who have or have had eating disorders, seeing calorie counts feeds right into our obsession (pardon the pun). These kinds of triggers can be VERY hard to ignore. And with the prevalence of eating disorders out there, it's a problem for a lot of people.

I really don't understand why ALL the nutritional info, including ingredients (especially allergen info), can't be put in a brochure in the restaurant, so it's accessible to those who want it, and out of the way for those who don't.

ebem said...

I’m not sure that I agree that assumptions are being made with the posting of this nutritional information.

I think it’s probably true that a lot of consumers don’t know what they’re eating. For many people who aren’t habitual dieters, salad dressing, preparation oils and fats, and condiments don’t factor in to the nutritional content of food. I think having more information available to the non-savvy consumer can’t hurt. Unfortunately, the section of the world that experiences some type of disordered eating does not have much of a voice when it comes to these types of decisions. I also think that most dieters and non-dieters are aware that foods very high in calories (like most fast food and chain restaurant options) are either heavy in portion size, or heavy in fats.

Perhaps a half-solution to this would be to post nutritional information like that found in store bought foods. I think the overall problem with restaurants posting nutritional information is that it lacks accuracy. Portion sizes vary by dish and by chain. An extra pat of butter could be added to your fettuccine in one trip, but not the other. I think that this issue boils down to the sort of overall theme of making healthy choices based on what is available.

zubeldia said...

Most people do not have clinical eating disorders... I doubt most people will be triggered as many people here would. At the same time, there ARE real and documented connections between what we eat and health. I don't mean calories and weight connected to health, I mean what we eat... It might not be popular to say, but food matters, our choices matter. There has been an epidemiological shift away from infectious diseases to chronic, degenerative diseases which have their triggers in the environment. Food is one of those components...

I, for one, want to know what I'm eating. I want to know if it has transfat and some animal byproduct, I want to know if it has fiber and protein... and one of the reasons I don't eat out is because these data are not readily available.

I think that advertising calories on their own is a horrible idea, I think that putting out information that people can ignore if they wish, is a great idea. We are a weight obsessed culture, for sure... but pretending that food doesn't affect heath, that there are no such things as bad food is unhelpful too. See, I happen to believe that some foods are bad. I happen to believe that foods can be bad for a variety of reasons... their effects on the body, where the food comes from (is the food a result of some harm, was suffering involved in the production of food, and more) - contribute to whether i view it as bad. Thus I'd feel better about knowing...

I think if one looks narrowly at this - ie, through ed lenses - then this is an awful idea, but I don't think it's an inherently awful idea...

Vegan Bulimic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vegan Bulimic said...

Fascinating, wonderful.

I've been an advocate of the NYC calorie laws because I feel it holds restaurants accountable, as if they'll cook healthier food because now it's exposed.

but maybe not. probably not.

and, as my room mate asks: is this an attack on the restaurants or on the consumer?

maybe it's both. an attack on our eating habits in general.

Anonymous said...

I was in Renfrews IOP program when they introduced this "law." I do realize that most of the consumers have the opposite problem, but as someone trying to recover from an eating disorder, having the caloric content of everything from BLACK coffee, to dessert, to grilled vegetables only wreacked havoc with the mind war I endure daily. I went crazy one day when I was trying a "challenge" food - pizza. I was trying to calculate the measurements of the pizza and wondering how in the hell they can tell me it has X amount of calories when they make each one individually. At the end, it was not worth the mind math and I gave up. I wish that establishments would post the information online and have a brochure or pamphlet for consumers that want to know. The general public does not need the constant bombardment. Everything in moderation. Exercise your right to consume what you desire because everything in life is a choice. A simple choice.

sue said...

I'd prefer to see an accurate description of ingredients in every dish. I have celiac disease and 7 food allergies. Consuming any of my allergens can cause me to suffer 3-14 days of excruciating gut pain. I need to know exactly what's in every dish without having to guess or ask the server, who usually doesn't know. The food labeling act already requires packaged food to indicate whether that contains any of 8 common allergens. I would like to see that information on menus for all restaurants.

April said...

Yikes! Dr. Stacey, you're opposed to posting information???

2/3's of Americans are overweight or obese, and most are trying to do something about it. Less than 1.5% are anorexic... and that's just teenage girls, the figures are much lower among adults. Must we forever tiptoe around people who might be triggered by a tiny bit of info? As you say, the anorexics already know the calorie count of the latte.

There is no label that says, "good" or "bad." There is a label that gives accurate information about the calorie content of a food. Ignore it if you want, but a lot of us enjoy knowing these things so we can make our choices in a more informed fashion. I love going to NY and seeing the labels!

This is the point where I think the fat acceptance movement really loses credibility. I agree that people should not be discriminated against for their weight. I agree that people should be able to eat whatever food they choose. But asserting that it's harmful to give people the information with which to make those choices, that's absurd.

Right up there with asserting that anyone who makes conscious decisions about what he or she eats, instead of mindlessly following cravings, has an eating disorder.

a

drstaceyny said...

All that's posted is the calories--no other nutritional information. I don't see anything wrong w/nut. information being available (on line, in pamphlets in the restaurants), but posted ahead, ppl don't have any choice and are only presented with one piece of information (and without education). If the focus is really on improving public health, and you have one item to post, should it be calorie count?

Cathy Adamkiewicz said...

How is it that a generation ago our parents managed to prepare meals, eat in restaurants, and maintain normal weights? This they did without benefit of calorie charts at every turn. Amazing.

So much has changed. We have so much information at our fingertips about health and nutrition, yet we suffer with eating disorders and poor body image. We are overweight and obsessed with food and dieting. It is so exhausting.

As someone who struggles with food and dieting obsessions, I find calorie disclosures both attractive and repulsive. Sadly I know I'm not alone.

Chuckles McGee said...

Calorie posting could be helpful in letting customers estimate their serving size- a "hamburger" at one place could contain two to three times the calories as a similar product at another restaurant- how can a customer know how much they're getting? Additionally, studies have shown that eaters consume 10% fewer calories when calorie counts are posted- just what we need to address the obesity epidemic.

I agree that we can benefit by posting more than just the calorie content, but getting restaurants to post ANYTHING is a good start.

Bailey said...

Like your facts & suggestions about diet & weight loss.

Nicole said...

Personally, I like the idea of posting calorie information. I realize it's not the whole picture. But overall, I try to eat healthy when home, and make good decisions when going out. But you can't plan everything, you don't always know where you are going to eat and some places don't have the information posted on-line to look up. I don't think there is anything worse than going to restaurant, choosing something you deem to be a healthy choice and going home to find out you just ate 2500 calories for lunch!

Anonymous said...

AAARRGH. This just drives me mad.
Zubeldia, you are NOT going to get the kind of information you seem to want. You are going to get CALORIES. Period. If you want more, you'll have to do some research.

I will certainly ignore it when I come across it (thankfully I don't live in NY and am in a state that usually lags behind with these fads). The problem I have is what this could do to dinner conversation. Can you imagine going out to dinner and all people can say is 'Oh look, the steak has xxxx calories, I can't eat that". "Well maybe you can if you decline the potato and take plain steamed broccoli instead". "If I skip the bread I'll save xxx calories". "No wine for me, too fattening".

Maria

zubeldia said...

Oh, maria, I am under no illusions here. I know that this is not the sort of info they'll give out, which is why I am very picky about where I eat. However, given the contemporary food industry and the increasing trend towards highly processes, factory farmed animal protein/fat, which causes unspeakable suffering - I would be a big proponent of some labeling...

I agree that calories - on their own - are pretty meaningless and contribute to a culture which is obsessed with weight. But I am also aware that we live in a culture which is paradoxically unconcerned with where their food comes from, where people are encouraged to mindfully chomp on all sort of crap. Again, I am not a fan of calorie labeling, but it would be erroneous to think that mindlessly chowing down on restaurant fare - which is generally swimming about in salt and fat because, well, those things are tasty - is also a good thing. Eating out now and then and choosing foods just because you like them - is great.. But most people eat out several times a week - and given the vast portion sizes and the unhealthy preparation... well, I think some mindfulness about that is a good thing.
Z

azusmom said...

OK, but we're not just talking about people with anorexia or those with clinically diagnosed eating disorders. And we are certainly NOT talking about vegetarians, vegans, those with Celiac, etc. And we're NOT comparing people who try to eat healthfully to eating disorders.
I'm talking about the vast numbers of women (and men) who have issues with food. Even if they haven't acknowledged it. The chronic dieters, emotional eaters, etc.
The fact is, many heavy folks know as much about calorie counts as an anorexic. If we stop assuming, just for a minute, that all fat people are lazy slobs who sit on the couch all day eating chips, we might just realize that food issues come in all sizes, literally.
A person doesn't have to be fat or skinny to have issues with food. In fact, people who have zero food issues are increasingly becoming the exception, rather than the rule.
Finally, I agree that if they're going to post nutritional info, it HAS to include ingredients. My SIL has Celiac, and most restaurant workers have no idea what that is.

Anonymous said...

AHA, Zubeldia! You have hit the nail on the head. The problem is "mindlessly chowing down on restaurant fare", the operative word being "mindlessly". However, I am a firm believer in MINDFULLY (knowing what I'm eating, eating just enough and stopping before I am stuffed) anything I like. It works. I am neither skinny nor obese, and according to my doctor, in excellent health. (Not that I am conviced the connection between food and health is as strong as we're led to believe, but I digress).

Daphne said...

At first the calorie listing seemed like a good idea until I actually saw it in action. In some chains, because the food can be "customized" with sauces and sides, sometimes they just list arbitrary numbers like "this food will be between 300 - 1800 calories" without listing what exactly gets those numbers. It's so ridiculous that it turns me off to eating there to begin with! I'd rather have a detailed brochure, or go on their websites like I did before than have this info presented in a way that its meaningless.

Pamalamb said...

april - "2/3's of Americans are overweight or obese, and most are trying to do something about it."

Trying to do something about it? By counting calories? Haven't Americans been doing that for 80 years or so since the first diet book was published? What has it changed except to make us continually hate our bodies and foster the multi billion dollar diet industry.

2/3's of all Americans? Says who?

zubeldia said...

I think that most people want to feel 'good' in their bodies. Unfortunately, 'good' has been so narrowly constrained by cultural ideals, and, added to that, the medicalization of obesity, and weight in general, makes this all the more pernicious.

I want to clarify my earlier comments here. I am all for labeling and full disclosure of ingredients and nutritional composition of foods. And I am all for making that info easily available and, yes, even for that info to be placed in areas where people who are simply not very knowing about food nutrition might be prompted to look at it (I think of people like my dad, who is extremely thin but eats horribly because he has zero awareness and zero knowledge). However, I do find the reduction of this 'info' to be very problematic because, quite simply, calories on their own DO, I think, add to a problematic culture and, crucially, to a problematic set of myths whereby health is reduced to body weight and calories consumed.

if we were serious about addressing health, then we'd look at the wider social conditions which give rise to such radically different life circumstances. If we're going to have social policy, let's have social policy which addresses inequity and stress (disproportionately high for those in the lower strata)... Those are the things that we know contribute to increased morbidity and mortality.