Is honesty really the best policy?

I hate to break the news, but a triple whopper at Burger King costs a whopping 1,160 calories. Thinking about running across the street to McDonald’s? A comparable triple-quarter-pounder with cheese still packs a 960-calorie punch. If this information comes as unwelcome, then any potential travel plans to one of these fast-food restaurants may need to be reconsidered.

In May 2008, New York City became the first city to implement calorie-labeling laws. Since then, momentum for similar laws has quickly picked up as city and state governments around the country have mandated displays of nutritional information in many restaurants. This makes it virtually impossible to remain blissfully ignorant of what exactly it means to “supersize.”

Though the truth hurts, the laws have been placed with the best of intentions. Health officials estimate that, because of the labels, the number of obese New Yorkers could decrease by 150,000 during the next five years. However, both junk food junkies and health nuts have met the laws with resistance.

Upon first impression, it seems obvious that more awareness on the nutritional information of food items would result in a healthier populace. Seventy-nine percent of people are in favor of calorie postings at restaurants, saying that more information leads to smarter choices, according to a survey by MSNBC.com.

What government officials fail to realize is that the obesity crisis is about more than simple numbers. To truly impart change, the behaviors of an entire country need to be addressed. This takes more than posting dauntingly large calorie counts.

The labeling laws are held back from reaching their potential by a key paradox. In most cases, only restaurants with 15-plus locations around the country are required to post information. This mainly includes fast-food chains. Unfortunately, the typical customer at many of these places is not usually concerned with nutritional information, whether obviously posted or not.

The average customer actually ordered slightly more calories than before the calorie labeling three months after the New York City law went into effect, according to a study published in Health Affairs, a medicine and health care journal.

In an ideal world, everyone would be responsible enough to educate himself or herself on the importance of nutrition. This unfortunately isn’t the case. The truth is that there will always be people who don’t care about the saturated fat in an order of fries.

So who pays the consequences? What about the people who view eating out as an experience to enjoy or as a reward from an otherwise healthy diet? For these people, calorie postings mean that a little bit of the pleasure of food is stripped away. It is difficult to enjoy a treat — emphasis on “treat” — in the comforts of oblivion when its nutritional information can’t be ignored.

I believe that there is some merit in calorie labeling laws; if they are able to inspire even a few people to make healthier dining choices, then something positive has been accomplished. Even so, food is about more than numbers. It’s about nourishment, enjoyment and — occasionally — a little bit of indulgence.

Originally published in The University Daily Kansan on October 28, 2009.

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One response to “Is honesty really the best policy?

  • michaeleriksson

    I am very much in favour of labeling laws, be it wrt restaurants or grocery stores. The reason is two-fold: Firstly, in my personal take on consumer issues, consumers should have a right to as much relevant information as possible—and “caveat emptor” is to be avoided. Secondly, those who do wish to pay attention to their diet should be enabled to do so.

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