Although The Times’ editorial was right that “laws that protect consumers from their own unhealthful habits have more than a whiff of the nanny state about them,” its support for menu labeling is wrong.
The measure — a quick-fix diet scheme passed off as “public health” — 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 (D- Pacoima) 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 set of statistics (calories) in a single format (plastered across menu boards). It’s not that simple. Our nutrition needs depend on our age, gender, height, medical status, daily schedule, activity level, likes, dislikes and more.
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, SB 1420 will only distract Californians from the bigger nutritional picture. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that it may even do more harm than good.
According to Cornell professor Brian Wansink, also director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’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.
Luckily, Assembly Member Nicole Parra (D-Hanford) has a solution for all of this: consumer choice. She has introduced alternative legislation (AB 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).
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 in a population as diverse as California — a notion that holds true when dealing with our waistlines. According to the National Weight Control Registry — the group that tracks thousands of Americans who have effectively lost and kept weight off for more than a year — there’s no single formula for success among the eating habits of those who shed their pounds.
But menu labeling ignores that. Sending a dangerous message (bold-face 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.
Trice Whitefield is a senior research analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers working together to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.