Eating by the numbers
It could be effective — once. The very first time you read it.
After that, I’ve got my doubts.
Starting on Jan. 1, the Ontario government began requiring restaurants with 20 or more locations in that province to fully display the caloric information for food and drink items on their menus. In many fast food restaurants, you can already find that information — but now, in Ontario at least, it has to be spelled out right in front of you, right where you order.
The argument is that, with the ability to make informed choices, people might naturally make better choices.
The jury is out on that one. Studies of similar legislation enacted in New York City in 2008 has left researchers firmly on the fence — the most recent study, from New York University, suggests as many as two- thirds of customers don’t even see the posted calorie information. (Despite that, the U.S. is bringing in nation-wide calorie information in May.)
The researchers found — logically enough — you not only have to see the numbers, but understand what they mean, know what your daily intake should be, and actually have a goal of eating more healthily.
And to go back to the very first sentence of this column, for someone to make a decision, the calorie number that’s displayed has to be substantially different than what the buyer already expects.
I call that the British beer test. Beers sold in Britain — heck, alcohol sold in Britain — lists, often in quite small print, the number of alcohol units in a container. A tallboy of strong beer might have as many as three units — a startling number the first time you knock back a pint of a strong IPA and realize you’ve essential had the alcohol equivalent of three bottles of light beer.
But you only really get excited about those numbers the first time you read them on the can. Once you know what to expect, you just drink beer like you always would.
Look, most people probably know it’s unhealthy to eat spoonfuls of frosting right out of a tub of prepared frosting. People know it’s a bad idea to lop off a hank of raw cookie dough from a processed food package and just eat it. But people do it anyway, and would do it even if the calorie numbers per spoonful and hank were precisely laid out on the container.
Those numbers are there, if you care to look — though sometimes it takes a little math to figure out how much you’re actually ingesting.
Take your average 255-gram large bag of potato chips. It has calorie and nutritional information right there on the back already. Have you read it?
No, I mean, have you really read it?
There are 260 calories in the standard serving size. Of course, the standard serving size, in the finer print, is — wait for it “about 19 chips,” or 50 grams.
I mean, all information is good. You can’t make a solid decision about what you are eating without access to accurate information, and there’s so much hidden salt, fat and calories in fast food that plenty of people will be surprised by what they see.
But the value of calorie counts and saturated fat numbers are in their sheer shock value — when you, for the first time, go “whoa, I had no idea.”
And then, because we’re human, you’re pretty much likely to do what you want to do anyway.
Despite the best of intentions, for many regular fast food eaters, the shock value of Ontario’s fast food restaurant calorie numbers will have worn off by the end of the week.
And they’ll move on to more pressing questions.
Like, do you want fries with that?