Uncle Sam Is Coming, Hide Your Lunchbox

We had previously reported about mandatory nutrition labeling in fast food restaurants, in the effort to assist parents in making healthier choices for their children’s food.  Now, less than a year later, some research is suggesting that it just isn’t working. This isn”t stopping the government from intervening. In November, San Francisco law makers announced that starting in December 2011 the toy included in Happy Meals would be banned unless they amend the meals to meet nutrition guidelines — namely less fat, less sodium and less calories.  But was this taking the issue too far?  It would seem so.  Daily Show reporter Aasif Mandvi purports that Happy Meals will now be “Crappy Meals”, further demonstrating how such legislation is being received by the public, including San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome, who felt that this ban was not within the city’s jurisdiction.

Happy meals or no happy meals, Americans are eating out more than ever, with more than 1/3 of their calories eaten away from home.  Nutrition labeling on packaged foods has been required by law for decades, but until recently consumers have not been provided the same information for food eaten at restaurants.

New York City was the first locality to make fast food nutrition labeling mandatory in 2008. In 2009, the New York Times reported that not only was it not working…the average calorie count of a fast food order had risen!  Since the Big Apple shot the first gun, more than 20 states have followed suit.  In a recently , researchers at Duke-National University of Singapore found no change in ordering behavior after calorie labeling was instituted in certain Washington counties 13 months ago.

Also of note, the recent passage of Obama’s healthcare reform bill will make calorie labeling on menus in chain restaurants and vending machines mandatory nationwide, official guidelines from the FDA are being released on March 23 of this year. The aim of this legislation is two fold; that food producers will change recipes to reduce calories, and that consumers will choose lower calorie items when confronted with the numbers.

Health experts emphasize that seeing discouraging results from these studies only highlight how difficult it is to actually change behavior…but does not show that the menu labeling is unsuccessful or should be abandoned.  Others think that the more our government is involved in our personal choices, the more evident it is that a “nanny state” is being created.

But, the legislation is not only trying to inspire consumer’s behavior to change, but also food producers’ behavior to change.  In that respect, the laws ARE having more of an impact. Most fast food restaurants are offering more healthy options and some have already cut calories on existing entrees.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is tracking the effect of menu labels on consumer behavior.  Largely, the studies have mixed results. However, this does not mean that the menu labeling initiative should be abandoned. Certainly 1 year is not enough time in which to decide whether the labeling is working. Behavior change is something that happens slowly, and is based on a multitude of factors. In 2009, two leaders in the Childhood Obesity field emphasized that the obesity epidemic is forcing the issue, and that public health can not wait for science to definitely prove a correlation before action.

The CSPI; or Center for Science in the Public Interest is a great resource for anyone interested in when calories will start to appear on menus in their state or even their county.

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