On April 14, Senate Bill 1420 is scheduled for a hearing in the Legislature. But there’s really no need. It’s nothing the lawmakers haven’t heard before. The bill is an exact copy of last year’s menu labeling bill – legislation that was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The measure – a quick-fix diet scheme passed off as a “public health” measure – assumes that consumers can’t tell the difference between french fries and fruit cups. It would require restaurants to turn their menus into encyclopedias, featuring long lists of nutritional warnings next to every item. For most of us, a back page of fat-and-calorie endnotes would suffice. But Sen. Alex Padilla, a Pacoima Democrat, and the cuisinuts who helped him cook up the proposal would rather force consumers to suffer through the informational equivalent of an ice cream headache before ordering lunch.
This previously vetoed labeling mandate aims to reduce dietary health to a single statistic (calories) in a single format (plastered across menu boards). By excluding all nutrition information except a calorie tally from our immediate consideration, Sen. Padilla’s reheated bill perpetuates the myth that “calories are all that counts.” But it’s not that simple. Our nutritional needs depend on our age, gender, height, medical status, daily schedule, activity level, likes, dislikes and other factors.
Beyond individual nutrients, our diet has much broader social and cultural contexts. One infamous study done a few years ago found that, when given the exact same food, people who enjoyed a meal absorbed more nutrients than those who did not. And by eliminating the ability to enjoy a dinner without government-sponsored shame, state legislatures would be taking “pleasure” off the menu.
With a narrow focus and built-in guilt trip, SB1420 will only distract Californians from the bigger nutritional picture. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that menu labeling may even do more harm than good.
According to Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, nutrition labels on menus generate a phenomenon called a “health halo.” Consumers who order an item labeled with a relatively low calorie count often reward themselves by eating “compensation calories.” One study found that this effect led Subway customers to eat more calories than those who ate at a McDonald’s. Consequently, menu labeling could lead to weight gain.
Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, D-Hanford, has a solution for all of this: consumer choice. She has introduced alternative legislation (Assembly Bill 2572) to ensure that consumers have access to a surplus of information without having it thrust in their faces.
Parra’s bill manages to accomplish the stated goal of menu-labeling advocates – making nutritional information available at restaurants – while simultaneously accounting for consumers’ individual preferences and needs. Her bill allows restaurants to provide such information in a variety of ways (such as brochures, posters, tray liners, food wrappers, electronic kiosks, etc).
We expect our food made-to-order. The food’s nutritional information should be no different.
This alternative proposal recognizes that one-size-fits-all legislation won’t work with a population as diverse as California’s – a notion that holds true when dealing with our waistlines. According to the National Weight Control Registry – a group that tracks thousands of Americans who have effectively lost weight and kept it off for more than a year – there’s no single formula for success among the eating habits of those who shed their pounds.
Menu labeling ignores that. Sending a dangerous message (bolded and in red, no less), mandatory labeling laws boil down countless considerations for a healthy diet into a handful of nutrients.
The food cops have arrogantly decided that they know what’s best for you – what’s best for all of us. If you want the choice back in your own hands, where it belongs, call your state legislators and tell them you’re smart enough to decide for yourself.