Not Quite Time for Change

You may or may not have read about the recent study from New York University that showed that menu labeling laws in New York City are not having an effect on the total number of calories ordered in fast food restaurants. The law in NYC has been in effect for over a year now, so it’s fair to assume that most New Yorkers are pretty use to seeing these numbers. But the results of this study show that the numbers aren’t quite having the effects they were hoping for, at least not yet.

Although the study did show that more people were noticing the numbers, and were in fact influencing buying decisions, the overall number of calories ordered did not drop when compared to when the same study was done before the law went into effect; in fact it was slightly higher.

Why is this? How could these numbers be having the opposite affect than they were intended to?

Some, like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg say that the study was done too soon. Others, like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation say that because eating behaviors are known for being difficult to change (as evidenced by America’s obesity epidemic) calorie posting isn’t enough, and that more needs to be done to help people use these facts.

I have to agree with both of the above arguments, and I’ll also take this opportunity to throw in my own two cents:

People want good food, people also want to be thin and healthy, but from what we’ve seen lately people want good-tasting food more. The article Healthy Menus: Just Don't Call Them Healthy, from Chain Leader author Monica Rogers discusses how some restaurants have been reformulating some of their recipes to be healthier and not telling their diners about it. Why? They’re afraid their diners will think that the taste quality has dropped, even though by some accounts the healthier items were said to be tastier.

Cent two: this study was done in low income areas of NYC. These are communities tend to have higher obesity rates; higher obesity rates due to higher consumption of fast food; higher consumption of fast food due to low income. To make things simple I’ll just agree with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This is going to take more time to fix and it’s going to take more effort.

So what’s next? Do we wait and see what more time will do with menu labeling laws? Or is there something else?

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  • As 'Catering Professionals' it is important to realize that we must be pioneers also in the food-health connection. Putting the calorie content on a Menu is a misleading route to take - what must appear on the Menu are healthy meal options - not just low calories, but vegetarian, vegan and even RAW food items.

    For too long, the food industry has had its head in the sand as to the effects of incorrect eating patterns and food habits.

    A healthier population will result when it is more convenient (as convenient as it is now to eat junk-called 'food') to eat healthy food options - but this will also require a change in this commercial system - huge rents make it difficult for restaurants to serve lower costing, healthier options - but that is exactly what is needed.

    It is a vicious circle - as the population grows, more methods are sought to produce edibles more quickly (not everything that is edible is 'food') - less time and money is invested in producing wholesome foods and people eat junk-called 'food' loaded with growth hormones, vaccines, and other additives and preservatives - all these play a role in creating obesity.

    Add to this, the average man or woman's lack of knowledge about the vitamin, mineral and calorific, value of food and the consequences of eating incorrectly and the problem is compounded.

    On top of that, the present system of 'dog eat dog' mentality that permeates society puts so much stress on the average person, they seek solace (especially in the low income group, but also among the high income groups who 'celebrate their wealth' by eating) in eating - and that, is a recipe for disaster.

    The word 'restaurant' comes from the Old French, meaning 'to restore' and it was coined from creating stopping places where travellers could stop, rest for the night, eat, drink and restore their energy for the next stage of their trip.

    We in this 'modern' world also have a responsibility to help restore the general population to a fantastic level of health - but as long as the profit motive poisons all thinking in this regard (at every level from farm to plate, from land lord to tennant) many restaurants shall be offering the same old, same old, in an attempt to make 'ends meet' and make what profit they can.

    What next? Restaurateurs take charge of their own industry and stop following the 'orders' from 'politicians' - for politics is the cancer that has created the mess we witness around us each day.

    Restaurateurs need to group and work together, not for more profit, but to create a streamlined real food supply (from farm to plate, including those experienced in diet and health) that is healthy for the population - when it comes to healthy food being 'tastier' or not, that is a matter of individual taste - de gustibus non est disputandum - you cannot argue with taste - and every one in this industry should know that our taste buds renew themselves every ten days or so, so those seeking healthier options will acquire the taste. It is the initial period of change, that can create the resistance...

    Look at this way - a restaurant is a tool, are we using ours for selfish motives or are we truly serving the communities, we serve foods that will make them healthy.

    Whether you like it or not, how you operate yours is a life or death decision and the restaurateur must understand their share in that response-ability.

    Are your customers getting the benefit of a Professional Food Service or are they subject to a greedy operator who just focusses on the 'bottom line?'
  • I think that the Feds should get together with the States and school systems to initiate "The War on Fat." Then the "O" man could elect a "FAT" Czar, and we could affect fat the way drugs and poverty have been impacted by their associated wars.
    In the past 40 years I have seen the amount of information on nutrition and exercise increase exponentially yet that knowledge seemed to fall on deaf ears, as noted by the weight of the average American increasing. Food may have become the drug of choice for Americans.
    So what is the solution, a FAT Czar, or Americans taking responsibility for their food intake?
  • Keith,
    Why not focus on where our efforts can have the greatest impact and use marketing tools that have proven to be effective. Concentrate on the youth in our schools by highlighting the positive impact on things they understand, i.e. physical appearence. Use marketing ploys simular to those that have been proven to be effective by the fast food chains.
    Perhaps an "enlightened" fast food chain might pick-up on this opportunity and start a new trend for their industry.
  • Alyson,
    Great post ! Very informative.
    I would like to add to Peter's response. How true, about the generations not knowing how to cook.
    Another couple of factors : Some schools no longer require physical education (it's an alternate class in many schools now).

    So many of the fast food chains are marketing to children and teenagers with what I call the "Cracker Jack" effect : prizes with the"meal plans" i.e./ Happy meals you get a toy car or
    sometimes something cross promoted with a book or movie.

    These are great marketing ploys, but I sometimes think there is too much enticement and nutrition and healthy eating habits are often sacrificed.
  • A generation or two of people in our country don't know how to cook. That is why they eat fast food. What's worse is that by the time they get home from the drive through window, the children have already finished their meal and end up in their 'kid cave' playing video games and missing out on the basic fabric of society - the family dinner. Of course many families are still eating together, but I have talked with many school administrators who estimate that 20% of their students have never even had a Holiday Meal together as a family.
    There is a reverse curve between the dropping of Home Ec from curriculum and the rise in fast food consumption. How can you be expected to cook for yourself when the idea of soaking some beans in water overnight and then cooking them with a little onion and some spices seems like a Culinary Mt. Everest ? Come on - 90% of the world exists on this food, but trying to get a segment of the population to do this is difficult at best, impossible in some situations.
    Bring back some Home Ec for the new Age and give these kids some skills.
  • Thank you everyone for your feedback and perspectives. I think that we can all agree that MORE needs to be done to combat obesity issues, especially in low-income communities. I especially love the mention of bringing cooking back to family life and back into the educational system.
  • There's another point here that I don't believe anyone has made -typically, poor neighborhoods are not good sources of healthy foods - where do you see natural foods shops, Whole Foods, or even farmers' markets in poor urban neighborhoods?
  • I've posted about this before. Our eating habits have been influenced for many years by advertising and marketing professionals.

    It is going to take many years to change them.

    Nutrition education must begin at a very young age and not just a class or two but a planned multi-year curriculum that includes basic cooking techniques and detailed information on additives and preservatives.

    Years ago families had a live-in home economist who cooked from scratch and shopped locally. The job title was MOM.

    Economics make that impossible now since families need to have both parents working to try to stay even, leading to tired parents with a need to avail themselves of convenience foods.

    Sure, continue to try to teach old dogs, but invest the time and resources in grade schools to set proper patterns. It will pay off.
  • Alyson,

    Consumer's who eat fast food are usually looking for a something as a quick fix. They are also usually on a low income budget or students.
    The menu items are mostly pre-cooked portion controlled & made with a lot of additives and preservatives. Most fast food eaters do not care what the calorie and nutritional values are.
    Public Schools should have nutrition education classes as well as sex ed classes. From a Chef's perspective labeling menu choices is time consuming.
    If I come up with 3 new specials dishes, I do not want to or have the time to breakdown the nutritional values: even though I cook healthy meals.
  • There is lots of software out there to help analize menus for nutritional content and especially calorie count and frankly is is not that hard to do by hand. Chefs resist it because it is time consuming and does not bring in additional revenue into the restaurant. Plus most of us believe that people are not actually looking for it (as the study proves). If we thought it would bring in customers it would be very easy to convince chefs and restaurateurs to spend the time and money .
    I don't think many people are suffering under the illusion that fast food is healthy but there are a minimum number of choices available that are readily available, cheep, easy and satisfying, especially in low income neighborhoods where it is tough to get businesses to make investments. Very few of them include vegetables and if we are talking about the difference in a hamburger vs. a Fried Chicken Sand with Bacon and Ranch, the difference in calorie count is not really significant. There needs to be targeted comprehensive education that is presented in culturally appropriate ways so it is actually effective -what works for a well educated high income population has no effect in a neighborhood where the median education level is not even high school and parents tend to have more children to feed and are younger.
    At the same time healthy choices have to be attractive, tasty and not too far outside of the comfort zone. I think in trying to make sure fast food appeals to everyone and stays within budget, we dumb it down so much we take out all of the flavor. If my exposure to healthy food was a tasteless, wilted iceberg salad at burger king I would be eating a lot of big macs too.
    Even in well educated population with high income levels part of the problem is that when people go out they are generally in a mood to celebrate, they make food choices for an emotional level and we fail to acknowledge this in most nutritional campaigns. We have always had healthy choices on our menu but no matter what else is on the menu, if I put on a steak with blue cheese, onion rings, and mashed potatoes it will be the biggest seller every time. When people eat out 2 or 3 meals a day this problem is magnified.
    Perhaps we should go back to teaching people to actually cook (home Ec. classes anyone?) - less processed foods are not only healthier but tend to be cheaper too.
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