If you’ve been to a Starbucks, Popeyes, Tim Hortons, or Burger King lately, you’ve probably noticed something different. If you haven’t, then the Healthy Menu Choices Act isn’t working.
Effective Jan. 1, the law requires businesses that have 20 or more locations in the province and that serve hot food to display calorie counts for all menu items. The number has to be right next to the dish name or price, in the same font and size — no funny business, no obscuring it behind a graphic. You even have to display calorie counts next to each additional side of guacamole or extra-cheese topping.
While I question whether this will make a difference in the way we eat (though it could be a harbinger of mandatory ingredient lists, which might have more impact), it’s a welcome addition to transparency in food purchasing.
Why pick on the chains? If the law applied to all restaurants, it would be catastrophic. Chefs in independent restaurants fiddle with recipes every day, coming up with new dishes or swapping out ingredients as they go in and out of season. Asking these small businesses to list calorie counts would paralyze their ability to function.
But coffee/sandwich/donut shops with more than 20 locations don’t change menu fonts without marketing data. If you’ve eaten a Subway chicken and bacon ranch melt (and judging by their nearly 50,000 locations worldwide, I'm guessing you have), you’ve seen the sandwich artists add tomato slices with the calculated precision of Count von Count listing his favourite Led Zeppelin albums. The business of fast food demands an ability to control ingredient costs with such precision that tracking calories shouldn’t be an imposition.
And while it may seem like common sense that noodles, roti, and pizza are not healthy lunches, I’m not sure that knowledge qualifies as common.
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Since 2010, the Toronto Star’s Megan Ogilvie has gotten perpetual mileage out of revealing, in her column The Dish, the nutritional content of cinnamon buns (high in sugar!) and bibimbap (high in salt!). A 2011 column on the chicken pad Thai from Thai Express was so popular and contentious that she had to do a follow-up in 2014 just to convince disbelieving readers that the dish contained more than 1,000 calories. Actual human people wrote to a science reporter to argue the conclusion that a bowl of noodles was not good for them.
So yeah, we are idiots. We may be the most intelligent species on the planet, but we can also be tricked into thinking a meal is lighter by the appearance of a lime wedge on our plates.
Having said that, does possessing more information result in us making better decisions? I mean, people keep giving Oliver Stone money to make movies.
New York enacted a similar law in 2008. A 2016 study found a 12 per cent decline in obesity, but attributed it to increased exercise rather than decreased calorie consumption.
The display of calorie counts may also pose risks for people with eating disorders, who are trying to avoid fixating on such information. On one hand, calorie counts are legally required to be clearly displayed on pretty much every packaged food in the supermarket, and I think it makes sense to hold fast food to the same standard. On the other, there’s a reasonable argument that this law could do more harm than good, prompting University of Guelph PhD candidate Andrea LaMarre, who has done research on overcoming eating disorders, to launch a petition to repeal the law.
“For the average consumer, a decontextualized caloric value offers little,” says LaMarre. “I recognize the utility of statements like, 'The average person requires 2,000 calories per day,' but fear that this gets misread when we don't define what we mean by ‘average’ — normal is not so easy to define, and many people have different needs based on age, gender, exercise, etc. ... Relationships with food extend far beyond their calories.”
I have to side with her there. According to Health Canada, I need about 2,900 calories a day, while my wife needs 2,350. Is the menu at Chipotle going to explain that, while also asking us if we’re getting enough zinc?
“But yes, I think that people should be able to know if they want to,” LaMarre says. But, she adds, if “other info could be equally as prominent (things like fats, vitamins, minerals, sugars, sodium, etc.) then we could at least highlight nutritional complexity. This would be a subtle way of underscoring the point that calories are not just calories.”
I’d say, then, that this law doesn’t go far enough. But it’s a good start. Fast-food establishments shouldn’t have a cloaking device to camouflage how much sugar, salt, and fat they use to make their food taste good. Because it’s our right to know what we’re eating. What we do with that information is up to us. If you don’t tell companies how to display the information, they will bury it on their websites under a tab marked “transparency.”
When I was a kid, I went grocery shopping with my father on Thursday nights. We had a rule that I could put whatever I wanted in the cart, so long as I read the ingredients and the first one listed wasn’t sugar. Over time, this taught me a few things.
1. That packaged food contains ingredient labels (required by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency).
2. That all the food I wanted (Lucky Charms cereal, Mr. cereal, Cookie Crisp cereal) listed sugar as a main ingredient.
3. That the companies who strategically targeted me with ads on my after-school cartoons would have successfully pumped me with, and addicted me to, sugar, if it weren’t for some basic parenting skills and food-labelling laws.
As grown-ups, we get to decide what goes into our bodies. We should at least have the right to make informed choices.
Corey Mintz is a Toronto-based food writer.
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