Thursday, October 25, 2012

Listing calories

I was reading this article about outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg when I was reminded of something I saw in New York that I really liked - calorie counts on the menu. It's not on every menu; I've since learned that it only applies to companies that have 15 or more branches nationwide. Which cleans up some of the confusion I had when I was there. Because I thought it was such an awesome idea I wondered why all of them weren't doing it.

I tried very hard when in New York not to eat at franchises. I wanted to experience unique food when in New York. But the reality was that sometimes I needed wifi and McDonald's has free wifi. That meant buying something to justify spending 30 or 40 minutes in there. I might have gone for a treat that turned out to be a caloritic bomb, but thanks to having the calorie count on the items, I always tried to find the cheapest, and fewest calories, thing on the menu.

This editorial I found from the Economist, which is about a year old, talks a bit about what some of the fallout has been since New York brought in the law. At first blush it doesn't look like it's changed too many habits. But apparently when you drill down a bit, you can see some changes, both in terms of people's behaviour and the businesses behaviour. They don't want to be seen as only offering unhealthy choices, so they expand the options on the menu.

There have always been ideas to get people to eat healthier. I know there's been talk for years about adding a junk food tax, which I never thought was going to work. People would grumble, but they would still pay the extra money. It was just going to be a tax grab rather than a way to get people to eat healthier. I haven't seen the amount of soft drinks consumed go down any with the recycling tax levee that most have these days. Trying to punish people for the choices they make doesn't seem to work all that often.

But informing them of the consequences of the choices they make? Now that could work. It'll take time, but it'll get there, I think. Smoking isn't dead yet, but decades of information campaigns and restrictive laws have done considerable damage. With sugar and obesity the next big health crisis to fight, what's wrong with giving people information on how many calories they're consuming when they have a Big Mac?

It's an idea that's going beyond New York. You'll start to see it across the United States next year, which I obviously think is a good idea. So Canada's next, right?


One quick Google search to remind myself if I actually read that Health Minister (and Nunavut MP) Leona Aglukkaq opposed the idea pretty much confirmed it. Once you dig past the bafflegab, you'll read that no, the Government of Canada is not planning on doing this. Which shouldn't be that surprising, really. It's a government opposed to more regulations (see oil and gas, mining industries), that talks about it's concern for the food system and then cuts the budget for food inspectors. Also, the food industry in Canada doesn't want (I assume these were some of the same enlightened people who opposed banning smoking in bars and whatnot) and are talking vaguely about creating something "better" than what they have in the United States.

Obviously I can't speak for everyone, but it worked for me. Any time I look at a menu I'm normally trying to figure out which of about five different items I'm going to get. If I know what the calorie count is, it's going to influence my decision. Maybe I don't get the lowest calorie item, but maybe it persuades me to order something with fewer calories. Which is a good thing, right?

But back to Bloomberg for a moment. I'm sure if I was living in New York I'd have a more complicated view of the mayor. But I like this idea. I like the idea that he's taking on obesity. And I love the quote:

"If I finish my term in office … and have high approval ratings, then I wasted my last years in office. That high approval rating means you don’t upset anybody. High approval rating means you’re skiing down the slope and you never fall. Well, you’re skiing the baby slope, for goodness’ sakes. Go to a steeper slope. You always want to press, and you want to tackle the issues that are unpopular, that nobody else will go after."

Yeah, there are downsides to that attitude, but I still like the idea of it. I think he might have made an interesting president if he had ever taken the plunge.

Last Five
1. Love is a place - Metric
2. Long may your run - Neil Young*
3. Liar, cheater, loser - Colleen Power
4. The forty - Mark Bragg
5. Fantasize - Liz Phair

1 comment:

John, Perth AU said...

Calorie (actually kilojoule) counts have become common in Australia since 2011. It's regulated at the state level, but most fast food places are putting kilojoule counts on their menus voluntarily countrywide. New South Wales has an interesting web site, 8700 being the target personal daily kilojoule count (about 4.2 kJ per Cal).