There has been plenty of big news in the Big Apple this month. Yesterday, a federal judge in the Southern District of New York upheld the city’s decision to plaster restaurant menus with in-your-face calorie counts. That story is disturbing on its own, but it becomes even more startling when viewed in light of earlier news.
Two weeks ago, the city’s Department of Health reported that people living in Manhattan have been gaining less weight than citizens of the other boroughs of New York City. The groundbreaking aspect of these statistics is that there’s no evidence that Manhattanites eat less than other New Yorkers. City food czar Thomas Frieden explained the weight discrepancy to The New York Times: “We’ve engineered the last physical activity out of our life.”
Since Frieden now admits that moving less (and not eating more) is the behavior behind New Yorkers’ weight gain, it’s unsettling that he’s one of the primary advocates behind menu labeling and other policies that focus solely on food.
In addition to distracting New Yorkers from the main contributor to love handles — physical inactivity — menu labeling has a whole host of other problems. As noted in the recent lawsuit, menu mandates force restaurants to reinforce the unhealthy message “that patrons must consider the caloric content of food when ordering in a restaurant, and that calories are the only nutritional criterion that patrons need to consider.” That’s an overly simplistic approach to nutrition to say the least.
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 their meals absorbed more nutrients than those who didn’t. And by eliminating the ability to enjoy a dinner without government-sponsored shame, Frieden and his cohorts are taking pleasure off the menu.
Though food cops blindly insist otherwise, it is possible to ensure that consumers have access to a surplus of information without having it thrust in their faces. In fact, pending legislation in California would accomplish the stated goal of menu labeling advocates — making nutritional information available at restaurants — while simultaneously accounting for consumers’ individual preferences and needs. Unlike New York’s “my way or the highway” approach, this bill allows restaurants to provide nutritional information in a variety of ways (such as brochures, posters, tray liners, food wrappers, and electronic kiosks).
New Yorkers expect their meals made-to-order. The food’s nutritional information should be no different.