On January 1, Seattle started requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts on the menu. To see what the counts look like, check out this photo album. Right now I’m writing from Starbucks, and the calories are clearly posted.
Nobody asked me my opinion on this topic, so naturally I wrote a thousand words about it.
Here are three plausible results of posting calories on menus:
Positive public health outcome: On average, people choose lower-calorie menu items and lose weight.
Neutral public health outcome: On average, people’s behavior doesn’t change.
Negative public health outcome: People choose lower-calorie menu items, get hungry later, and eat a Snickers.
If I had to put money down, I’d put it on number two, but the others also seem at least possible. The county is planning a study to determine the effect of the new policy. To find out more about what that would entail, I spoke to Matias Valenzuela in the Public Information and Education department of Public Health.
First of all, he said, calories are the only data that have to be posted on the menu, but other numbers must be made available at point of sale, including carbohydrates, sodium, and saturated fat. The carb and sodium counts will be of indisputable value to people with diabetes or salt-sensitive hypertension, so I think this is great.
As for evaluation, Valenzuela said it would be extensive. King County is adding questions to the Behavioral Risk Factor Survey, asking people questions like:
- In the past 7 days, how many times did you eat at, or buy take out food from a chain or fast food restaurant?
- What is the name of the last chain/fast food restaurant you ate at or bought take out food from?
- Did you see any information about the number calories for the items you were interested in ordering?
- Did you see calorie info before you placed your order?
- Did you see any information about the amount of saturated fat, sodium, or carbohydrates for the items you were interested in ordering?
- Did you use the nutrition information to help you decide what to buy?
They are also sending investigators to about 50 sites to ask customers on the spot whether they saw the information and what they are ordering. This will be compared with control data from Multnomah County (Portland, Oregon), whose labeling law hasn’t gone into effect yet.
Additionally, Public Health will be evaluating whether restaurants change their menus in response to customer demand for healthier options.
I hit Valenzuela with my Snickers hypothesis. “We can’t be sure,” he said. “It’s not going into people’s homes or other areas, although there has been labeling for example in supermarkets, when you buy packaged food. Somebody is going to be buying that Snickers bar. They can look at that bar and see how many calories, if they’re interested.”
The program only applies to chain restaurants with 15 or more locations nationwide. I asked whether they’re considering expanding it to non-chain restaurants. “It’s not something that’s being looked at or considered,” said Valenzuela, although he expressed hope that non-chains would follow suit in response to customer demand. “As consumers get more of this information they begin to expect it and begin to use it,” he said. “Savvier consumers will be asking for it when they go to places that currently don’t have this kind of information.” He didn’t know what percentage of restaurant meals in King County are served in chain restaurants.
Still, after talking to Valenzuela I felt better about some parts the program, at least. I’m glad the carb and sodium information is available for people who need it. But the calorie counts bother me. Obviously they’re being posted in an effort to reduce obesity and its related syndromes.
That’s a laudable goal. But are some bad assumptions behind the posting of calorie counts.
Bad assumption #1: Obesity is caused, in part, by people inadvertently consuming more calories than they thought they were.
Bad assumption #2: Obesity can be treated or avoided by counting calories.
I hope it’s as obvious to you as it is to me why these are bad assumptions, because I’m not going to go into it. But I do want to bring this back to the enjoyment of good food, which is what this blog is supposed to be about, because I have to admit that my knee-jerk response to posting calorie counts has nothing to do with its “effectiveness” per se.
Nutritional information makes food less delicious. Imagine how you would feel if you came to my house for dinner and I served homemade lasagna bolognese. “Enjoy the lasagna,” I say. “The serving on your plate contains 1200 calories, 23 grams of saturated fat, and 1500 grams of sodium.” You would strangle me, because I would have ruined the lasagna for you. It wouldn’t taste good. Right?
My point (other than that you should junk-filter my Evites) is not just that nutrition information is an impediment to hedonistic gluttony. Healthy populations, poor and rich, rural and urban, tend to really enjoy their food. Yes, that is a highly unscientific statement, but several experiments have been done indicating that interfering with subjects’ enjoyment of food in a lab setting actually causes them to absorb fewer nutrients from the food. As the Boston Globe put it:
Britain’s number-one guideline, ahead of admonitions to eat more fiber and less fat, is simply: “Enjoy your food.” Norway, in its own set of guidelines, reminds its citizens that “food and joy equal health,” while Vietnam counsels people to have food “that is delicious…and served with affection.”
(Everything I know about Vietnam and its food suggests that this would be the world’s easiest advice to follow. Britain and Norway might present greater challenges.)
Maybe the King County initiative is really a sneaky way of making chain restaurants less palatable and driving people to local restaurants. That’s almost clever.
So, to sum up my feelings (finally!), I’m an “information wants to be free” kind of guy. I think nutrition information should be made available at the counter for those who ask for it. I think discriminating between chain and non-chain restaurants is unfair. And I think putting calories counts directly on menus is probably bad for customers’ health. (It would be awesome if someone did a version of the Sweden/Thailand experiment where a control group was served lasagna with no nutritional information and the experimental group got the same lasagna with numbers attached.)
I’ll check back in with King County next year and see how the evaluation is going. In the meantime, I will finish my tall cappuccino. Only 90 calories.
P.S.: Big thanks to Matias Valenzuela at Public Health for spending time with me on the phone and email. I would not have been nearly as patient if some guy with a blog called to run his Snickers-related hypotheticals by me.