American Madness

Intelligent Criticism in the Service of a Better Nation

Listing calories is a stupid idea

Posted by Josh Friedlander | 16 Comments

Putting a calorie count on all menus, a measure the NYTimes supports, is one of the dumbest ideas yet. Yes, it may actually decrease obesity, but I really don’t care. The measure does not address the real problems behind obesity, namely the inclusion of sugar or toxic artificial sweeteners in nearly all foods. It will give pause to people, but it’s yet another affectation of the nanny government.

I am not obese, but in Starbucks this weekend I had to stare down at a calorie count next to every item in the display case, and seeing “440 calories” written next to a chocolate chip cookie is the reason I did not buy that cookie.

Sure, when it comes to junk food, calorie counts could be helpful, but what’s next? Will we apply that information to every item on the menu? Some foods that are high in fat and calories are actually very filling and, in the long run, good for us. A focus on calories over nutritional density is the wrong focus and will increase the already mighty proliferation of low-calorie foods rich only in chemicals, salt and air.

The rules, recently upheld in Federal Court, “will give people information they need where they need it,” said New York City health commissioner Dr. Thomas R. Frieden. “If you want to use it, great, and if you don’t, that’s entirely your right.”

But it’s not up to me whether I have to see the numbers. It wasn’t up to me at Starbucks. I had those numbers shoved right in my face. And those numbers hold associations that may or may not be fair. Certainly, a cookie is just eggs, milk and sugar — mostly empty calories — but other high-calorie foods won’t deserve the negative implication that their calorie count suggests.

If we’re going to give information to consumers, I think we have to give them ALL the information — at least you can make an argument for that. But taken ad absurdem, this “give them information” argument means we should have pictures of babies on condoms (might break!), and vehicular death statistics printed on the outsides of cars (how about exact mortality stats based on car models), and of course cigarette packs should have pictures of cancerous patients or blackened lungs as they do in Canada.

Reasonable people know what they should or should not eat. That’s not the problem. The Farm Bill and its inherent conflicts (corn subsidies, for instance) are the problem.


16 Responses to “Listing calories is a stupid idea”

  1. Eric Hazard
    April 21st, 2008 @

    Don’t you want the government to protect consumers from making bad decisions?

  2. Matt Friedlander
    April 21st, 2008 @

    I agree with you Josh that the companies should be forced to list everything on their food labels. Sure mortality rates and babies on condoms seem like the next step but so what? You can choose to close your eyes when tearing open the label or stepping into the drivers seat. When it comes to food, I believe you should know what the hell is in it.

    Besides, I want to start seeing more of this….and less of this

  3. Josh
    April 21st, 2008 @

    Of course not. I’m not against them setting rules and minimum standards (drinking water quality, traffic rules), but everyone knows fast food is bad.

  4. Jason
    April 21st, 2008 @

    Eric, I hope your remark was said with dripping sarcasm. From your comments of yours I read I gather that you lean to the conservative side. Traditionally conservativism (or the Republican platform at least) is partly about smaller government.

    No, the government should not be responsible for protecting people from their own bad decisions. Bad decisions are personal choices – as are mis/uninformed ones, by the way. The only time a government should be concerned with a person’s bad decisions are when they affect the health and safety of others, e.g., getting drunk and then driving.

    If you really believe the government should be in the business of protecting us from ourselves then all things ‘bad for you’ should be illegal. If eating a 440 calorie cookie is a decision bad enough that the buyer (presumed too stupid to otherwise decide for himself) must be told how many calories it contains, then he should also be prevented from buying it altogether. Or maybe that’s a bridge too far. Why not just make it illegal for fat people to buy junk food? Oh, wait! American Madness already covered that here.

    Generally I don’t care if government requires a food establishment to MAKE AVAILABLE the nutritional information of its products, but only in places where set items and products are made daily. I don’t think that every restaurant should have to make available nutritional information for every menu item and special. But Big Macs, Whoppers, Starbucks cookies and Nathan’s Hot Dogs are always the same.

    I do agree with Josh that plastering calorie counts on everything is not necessary. A simple posted notice stating that nutritional information is available upon request would suffice. To me that would be akin to the signs posted in every liquor store and bar (required by law, as well) stating something negative about drinking alcohol. I suppose the next step (in the same vein as posted calorie counts) would be to require bartenders, waiters and liquor store shop attendants to verbally advise their customers of the possible health effects of alcohol.

  5. Eric Hazard
    April 21st, 2008 @

    Jason, you are correct, I post my rhetorical question with a heavy emphasis on sarcasm.

    And you are partly correct about my political leanings. I identify myself most closely as a libertarian. In that, I believe in personal choice and responsibility for said decisions.

    I don’t believe it is necessary to post calorie counts next to food items. I don’t believe it has any impact whatsoever on food options. Take cigarettes for example. Dennis Miller had a comedy sketch about 10 years ago making fun of the current labeling of cigarette packs. I’m paraphrasing, but he essentially said, “you could put ‘Cancer!’ as a one word label on the package and people would still line up around the block to buy them.”

    I actually believe posting calorie counts lets a genie out of the bottle we are unprepared for in this country. First, what happens when the calorie counts are inaccurate, though no fault of the food vendor. For example, someone orders a latte with whole milk, three shots of sugary syrup and then goes to the counter to dump three tablespoons of sugar into the drink. How in the world does Starbucks label that? If they now have a legal responsibility to post calorie counts, are they legally liable if someone claims they were being mislead about the caloric intake of their daily coffee?

    Second, the legislation presupposes consumers are educated enough to know what caloric intake is bad for them. Who bears the burden of responsibility to ensure the proper education? Josh’s post hits at this theme. Are all calories bad? Humans after all require a certain caloric intake daily to maintain the necessary homeostasis to function as human beings. If someone develops a mental condition by which they consume as little calories as necessary in a bid to be “healthy” (think models) we have actually created a public health problem that we are not taking steps to correct.

    Third, and this one to me is the juiciest of problems. Restaurant chains do not post calories in a vacuum. Someone has to research calorie counts and someone else has to print signs to display them. Where does the government think the expenditure is coming from? Restaurants will of course pass along those costs directly to the consumer. The price of food, a big topic in this week’s Economist, suddenly becomes more expensive due to the necessary compliance. And it hits the poorest segments, those ironically enough who lack the proper education to fully comprehend calorie counts in the first place, the hardest. I’m not saying McDonalds provides a healthy meal always, but they do provide sustenance to a large swath of the population. They will fill the cost the most.

    I applaud the restaurant industry’s efforts to make as much information as possible available Web site, posters in the restaurant, menu papers, etc. A government mandated disclosure goes too far and creates more problems than it solves.

  6. Josh
    April 21st, 2008 @

    We’ve got a dissenting opinion!

    Spelt Sweetie says:

    How freakin’ dumb do you have to be to think that having calorie counts up in menus is a bad idea. OK perhaps it isn’t as good as having all nutritional value, but this is a step in the right direction. American Madness states that the calorie count of 440 stop them from buying a chocolate chip cookie at Starbucks. I mean really is that such a bad thing, and that is great that you aren’t obese but that doesn’t mean you are healthy. Ok, I get it, yes high calorie counts for healthy food may have a negative impact, but last time I check Quiznos, Starbucks, McDonald’s or Subway (and I really don’t care how much weight Jared lost, that stuff is still bad for you) aren’t exactly the first places that come to mind when I think healthy eating. So perhaps it really is in the interest of our nation to stop the grande mocha chip frappe with a large chocolate chip cookie trend. I’d like to see everything labeled, from fat, carbs, to most importantly ingredients, but yeah know what I’m going to take caloric value as a small victory.

    And let’s be honest, until Americans understand what a healthy diet is and NOT a fab diet (high carb, low carb, low calorie, low fat, high fat, whatever) than any label could be considered a a problem.

  7. Carl
    April 22nd, 2008 @

    Really? So you’d rather people were kept in the dark about the crap they’re eating?

    > If eating a 440 calorie cookie is a decision bad enough that the buyer (presumed too stupid to otherwise decide for himself) must be told how many calories it contains, then he should also be prevented from buying it altogether.

    This has nothing to do with a buyer being too stupid to decide for himself. That number is not a judgement, it’s nothing more than a piece of information to help the consumer decide whether they should eat something or not. The decision to continue is still up to the customer, but now at least they have some information to help with that.

    Eating a 440 calorie cookie in itself isn’t so bad. But eating 2 of them with a 600 calorie drink would constitute 3/4 the recommended daily caloric intake!

  8. Josh
    April 22nd, 2008 @

    Carl: I’m not advocating that restaurants hide the information, but it’s already widely available. I’m against the government dictating the way I live my life, including requiring that I consider a particular piece of information before making a purchase. Once they place that calorie count in front of me, I can’t unsee it.

    Imagine if every pair of large jeans came with a warning about the dangers of obesity? Or, as I noted above, if cars came with warning labels. What if everything potentially dangerous came with a warning label? And what if that warning label only focused on one particular aspect of the potential harm?

    Not to overstate this, but throughout all of human history people have been able to make decisions about what to eat and cultures survived by supporting an agriculture and a cuisine that, in aggregate, allowed human life to flourish (if they didn’t find a way to do this, these societies are no longer with us).

    Our current overabundance of food and overuse of chemical additives and concentrated sugars is the reason for our national obesity epidemic. We have engineered food that is meant for cheap stocking and easy sale (sugar doesn’t degrade on a shelf as quickly as other ingredients) and is not particularly well designed for human consumption, though it appeals to our tastes.

    Mass market food is created, in short, to trick people. Fast food restaurants even engineer the smell of food to trick us.

    Calorie counts are a small part of a larger problem. And think of the affects this policy will have. It is possible (but I don’t take it for granted) that people will stop eating the highest-calorie foods now that they are forced to reckon with the total calorie count of their selections, but then the fast food response is not going to be to offer healthy food, but to offer low calorie unhealthy food filled with additives to make it seem filling.

    Also, to argue that people are unaware of what they are eating is to discount their intellect: it is an elitist stance. People who are worried about their weight can take very simple steps to obtain nutritional information about fast food products just as savvy car buyers or home buyers or cell phone buyers can investigate those types of purchases.

    It is not the government’s prerogative to tell me what one piece of information is most important to my consumption or mandate that I must see that piece of information prior to making a purchase. The government also has no business telling me what kind of girl to marry, what kind of house or car or school or clothing or job is right for me. The government has no business telling me anything at all.

  9. Jason
    April 22nd, 2008 @

    Carl, in addition to concurring with Josh’s entire comment, I would like to add that my comment stated quite clearly (in all caps, mind you) that I have no problem with requiring the availability of caloric information. It’s the requirement that it be displayed that I object to.

    And to follow up on Eric’s point about warning labels on cigarette packs: those warning labels come from a time when it was not widely known that cigarettes were bad for you (or as bad for you as we now know). It was also a time when tobacco companies were deliberately misleading the public about the adverse health affects and addictive properties of smoking (which they knew about long before the public). At the time those warnings were placed on cigarettes they were important.

    But you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Once there was a government mandate for warnings on cigarette packs how could they ever retract it? Removing that label now would make it seems like cigarettes aren’t bad for you anymore. This is basically how airport security works nowadays, but that’s an entirely different post which maybe I’ll write later.

  10. Eric Hazard
    April 22nd, 2008 @

    Jason, my cigarette warning labels was a bad example. You are right, they came at a time when the public needed more information about their dangers. My point was more to the fact that even though we tell people they can die at the smokey tet of the dark mother, folks still buy them at about the same level as the past 10 years.

    I don’t see how calorie labels will help prevent any health problems in New York. With all of the labeling we provide consumers for cookies and saturated fat filled foods, people still buy them. So what good do calorie counts do at restaurants? Does the government of New York actually think we will be a healthier city because we know Big Mac kill? I doubt it.

  11. ScarletKnights
    April 24th, 2008 @

    Jeez, lighten up, will ya?

  12. American Madness » Blog Archive » NYC Health Department Gestapo Cracks Down on Calories
    May 6th, 2008 @

    [...] Madness has previously expressed our disapproval of the mandate to post calorie counts on NYC restaurant menus. Chief among the initial concerns was [...]

  13. Josh
    May 10th, 2008 @

  14. American Madness » Blog Archive » Corrupted Calorie Counting
    June 18th, 2008 @

    [...] at AmericanMadness we have not been huge fans of the law that requires chain restaurants to post calorie counts. Essentially we feel that the [...]

  15. American Madness » Blog Archive » On Calorie Counts
    June 24th, 2008 @

    [...] by my count. American Madness team: 1 Crazed calorie posting advocates: [...]

  16. detoxdiets
    October 2nd, 2009 @

    i always make sure that i am on a Low Calorie diet. i avoid foods with high carbohydrate load because it would just cause more fats on the body. a low calorie diet is also associated with longer life span.

Leave a Reply

  • Trust us

    As with Anna Karina, we prefer to remember the U.S.A as she was in the 1960s.
  • Archives

  • RSS Matt Friedlander’s Tumblr Feed

  • RSS Josh Friedlander’s Twitter Feed