Eat­ing by the num­bers

The Southern Gazette - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky

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?

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.