Friday, May 21, 2010

Does posted nutritional information lead to smarter food choices?

Slashfood (one of my favorite blogs) ran an article this week that claims Burgerville (a fast-food chain in the Pacific Northwest) has started printing calorie counts on its receipts, along with suggestions on how to make your next meal healthier.

Some of the article's commenters were thrilled with the idea, hoping that other restaurants would soon start doing the same thing. I, however, think its ridiculous. What good is it knowing the fat and calorie counts of your order, after it's paid for? What restaurants should really start doing is putting nutritional information right on the menu or the ordering board; then, people can make informed choices about what they eat before they buy.

In 2008, New York passed a mandate requiring that nutritional information be provided on menus. When I traveled to the city last year for a vacation, I got to see the effects of this legislation first hand. Every restaurant I entered -- from Sbarro to the Olive Garden -- had nutritional information prominently featured. I found the information incredibly helpful in choosing what to eat. Since I found a number of things I'd like to eat in each restaurant, having calorie and fat counts readily available made it easy to narrow down my decision.

When I ate at the Olive Garden, for instance, I was trying to decide between the Shrimp and Asparagus Risotto or the Chicken Parmigiana, which both sounded wonderful. When I glanced at the nutritional information, however, I quickly learned that the risotto was one of the healthier dishes on the menu, while the chicken parmigiana would have cost me over 1,000 calories and 49 grams of fat. I ordered the risotto (which was still delightfully decadent) and saved myself over 400 calories. Without the nutritional information, I would have perhaps mentally flipped a coin in my head, rather than making the best nutritional choice, and when I have two otherwise equal options, why shouldn't the healthier dish win?

It seems that the people of New York are making the same kinds of choices. A study by the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recently illustrated that since 2008's nutritional mandate was put into place, "people purchased lower calorie meals at 9 of 13 fast-food restaurant and coffee chains that were included in the study." While I (and many other patrons at these restaurants) know that fast-food isn't good for a person, it's nice to know that people have the option to choose a healthier meal when they're eating in New York. When I'm on the go (or on vacation) and have to eat out, I'd like to have information about what I'm about to consume before I commit to buying it. Otherwise faulty logic can sabotage a person's attempt to eat right. (Fish is healthier than hamburger, so the Filet-o-Fish must be a better choice than a Cheeseburger at McDonald's, right? Wrong. You'll go through an extra 80 calories and 6 grams of fat with the fish sandwich. Blame the breading and the deep fryer.)

While some areas have followed New York's lead when it comes to nutritional information, most have not. If seeing posted calorie and fat counts leads a consumer to purchase one slice of pizza instead of two, or the risotto instead of the chicken parm, the mandate will have been worth it. Restaurants don't have to worry that people will stop eating out. People will continue to eat at restaurants and there will always be someone willing to down a colossal cheeseburger (or two) or an enormous bucket of fried chicken. The rest of us would just like the ability to make smarter choices when we're out, even if that just means eating the thin-crust spinach pizza instead of the deep-dish pepperoni.

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