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Is Ignorance Bliss or Would You Rather Know?
What if the next time you opened your menu at your favorite restaurant, the nutritional information (calories, fat, sodium, etc.) was right there for you to consider? Would you still order the Houston Grill Chicken Salad (34 grams of fat) or the Macaroni Grill Salmon (1160 calories, 25 grams of fat, and 1240 mg of sodium!)? How about Molten Chili Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream (1270 calories and 62 grams of fat)? Are you surprised by these numbers? Or would you rather not know?
New labeling mandates that go into effect this year require restaurants with 20 or more establishments operating under the same name to provide nutritional information on their menus.
Why does the government think it’s important for you to know? Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy food commissioner, cites “the enormous obesity problem in this country that is due in part to excessive consumption of calories outside the home.”
Extra weight, as most of us know, comes with its own problems, including an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and many types of cancer. In fact, obesity is on pace to overtake tobacco as the number 1 cause of preventable death in the United States.
Today, 63% of American adults are overweight or obese. If we keep piling on the pounds, obesity will cost the US an estimated $344 billion in medical expenses in 2018.
Are you starting to see the domino effect here? Wow, there’s more.
Obese patients spend an average of $1,429 (42%) more annually for their medical care than people of a healthy weight. Health economist Eric Finkelstein, co-author of The Fattening of America, says medical costs won’t come down unless Americans “keep improving their diet and exercise patterns.”
So will the new nutrition labeling requirements help? Proponents, myself included, believe that if you know what’s in your food, you’re more likely to make better decisions about what you put in your mouth, and thus have a better chance of avoiding the obesity trap. However, many restaurants worry that if you know the nutritional truth, you won’t come back.
Houston’s, a popular restaurant chain with 30 locations across the United States, apparently thinks you can’t handle the truth. Instead of reprinting its menus to include nutritional information, the chain is changing its name. It’s right; Houston’s is rebranding 11 of its locations with the new Hillstone name, giving up 34 years of brand equity in its name to circumvent the new law. That way, customers can continue to enjoy their spinach dip and ribs without the burden of knowing what the caloric cost is.
So I ask you again: is ignorance bliss or would you rather know?
You might think that all this government intervention is too much. But what if it could actually save lives, not to mention millions (billions) of our taxpayer dollars. Let’s see two cases.
When seat belt legislation went into effect in 1984, you may recall that critics argued heatedly about the restrictions on our civil liberties. People were up in arms about the government telling us what to do with our own cars. Well, statistics published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that seat belt legislation has reduced the number of injuries in road accidents by 45% and has reduced death from road accidents by 50% . And for a country that can’t afford it, annual medical costs due to accidents amount to about $11 billion, rising to $70 billion when lost productivity is taken into account. Imagine what those costs would be without seat belt laws.
On the other hand, how effective has tobacco legislation been? Cigarette advertising on television and radio was banned in 1970, when approximately 50% of Americans smoked. Warning labels on cigarette packages first appeared 46 years ago, and yes, we’ve seen a steady decline in smoking over the past four decades. Today, 20% of Americans still smoke; while still a significant number, it’s less than half the number who smoked in the 1970s. (The FDA has proposed new, larger warning labels, designed to cover 50% of the package. They will have a greater effect by reducing smoking?)
But cigarettes and chocolate cake aren’t nearly the same thing…or are they? Sugar has also been shown to be highly addictive, and despite the ‘fun’ image of a sugary dessert, too much sugar can pose serious health risks.
Maybe something truly miraculous will happen with the new menu labeling; perhaps food companies and restaurants – faced with new labeling laws and better-informed consumers – will offer healthier options. Now that would be reason to go out to dinner and celebrate.
what do you think
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