As Axl Might Say If He Owned A Fast Food Chain Back Home In Indiana, "Get In The Onion Ring!"

We're good at sending mixed messages — the bullying double standard, for example — but one of the bigger ones I've noticed is the City's targeting of chain restaurants via calorie counts.

This isn't to say it's a bad thing to know that fast food contains "X" amount of calories — more information is generally a good thing — but the calorie count rules didn't apply to the vast majority of restaurants in New York City (this ABC News story from 2007 suggests that it only applies to ten percent of restaurants in the city). It always seemed to me that going after McDonald's was low-hanging fruit — a cheap and easy way for an administration to score cheap and easy points on a national stage.

More and more it seems that the Health Department campaigns expose a class divide. Granted, "worrying" about "class divides" can be an overwrought and facile response to stuff like calorie count posting — and too often people seem to argue that X, Y or Z is "classist" as if "classism" is in itself bad; classism may be distasteful, but it certainly isn't the worst offense — we have to go further than that.

That said, it's clear from the studies that followed the City's calorie count law that health professionals were specifically looking at the effect of calorie count laws on low-income populations. Here's one example:

The study, by several professors at New York University and Yale, tracked customers at four fast-food chains — McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken — in poor neighborhoods of New York City where there are high rates of obesity.

I'm less interested here in the result of the study — that calorie counts have little effect on eating behaviors (though that is interesting) — than I am in the focus of the studies, which is a low-income population. In arguing that national rules for calorie counts are a good thing, NYU professor of nutrition, public health, and sociology Marion Nestle makes the point that these types of studies are in fact flawed because they focus on low-income populations who are primarily focused on value versus nutrition.

But I think it was clear from the start that calorie counts were aimed at low-income populations who perhaps didn't know any better. I'm not sure anyone said this out loud, but it always seemed like the subtext behind the debate. Yes, this is difficult to prove but I think it's anecdotally correct — if you recall any conversations you've had about this over the last couple of years, I'm sure whoever you talked to seemed to express some kind of notion that there are people around who eat bad fast food and get fat and this stresses the health system and "we" should do something to fix this, etc., etc. And while someone might marvel at how many calories are actually in a Starbucks beverage, I don't think Midtown office workers are the people the Health Department are looking after. Thus the focus of the above study.

The calorie counting brochures released by the City Health Department (.pdf) say that "The new calorie information in NYC chain restaurants can help you avoid weight gain." The "Tips for Eating Out" seem obvious:

  • Compare calorie counts located next to menu items — and choose wisely.
  • Have a glass of water or seltzer instead of a sugar-sweetened drink.
  • If you order a sugary drink, get a small one.
  • Instead of foods that are fried or breaded, choose those that are grilled, roasted or broiled.
  • If you're in the mood for a sandwich, try turkey, chicken or lean roast beef, and go easy on the mayo.
  • Choose lower-calorie toppings on your pizza. Instead of pepperoni, ask for mushrooms or broccoli.
  • Have a single hamburger instead of a double.
  • Get a small order of fries instead of a large.
  • Ask for low-fat milk in coffee, and stick to sugar substitutes or one sugar.
  • Split a meal with a friend.

Like I said, I don't think this stuff is aimed at people who "know better" — you should be able to figure out for yourself that you'll gain more weight if you order double hamburgers, large fries and big sugary drinks. And if you didn't already know better, then you should probably Netflix Supersize Me or something because Morgan Spurlock will certainly show you how it works.

On the one hand, there's probably not a lot of harm in having the Health Department remind us about how many calories are in soda. On the other hand, it becomes counterproductive if the information is skewed or unscientific. And on a third hand, allowing for an environment in which it's acceptable for the Health Department to spend diminishing municipal resources to hector taxpayers about their food choices is symptomatic of a top-down we-know-better-than-you-about-you impulse that lately has been biting the current administration in its bony, calorie-counted rear end.

My point is that if you go down this road, you need to make sure that there is some logical consistency.

While the City Council, Mayor and Health Department apparently don't mind going after low-hanging fruit like fast-food restaurants for serving big portions of apparently unhealthy food to unsuspecting consumers, they're somewhat more circumspect about going after the 90 percent of other establishments that serve whatever they want to unsuspecting consumers. Yes, it would be prohibitively expensive for mom-and-pop establishments (or at least any place that's not a chain) to include calorie counts on menus, but going after the one and not the other implies an endorsement that's hard to overlook.

Michael Pollan has made a career out of encouraging people to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Interesting stuff, whatever, but so much of eating — definitely in New York and probably everywhere — still revolves around dining at restaurants, and even if you haven't been to a McDonald's in years, it's important to think about the healthfulness of restaurants at all levels.

What is striking to me is how on the one hand the City goes after the places that lower-income populations eat at — cheap stigmatized fast food — while on the other hand celebrates the places that higher-income populations patronize. The Mayor's television network had a whole series devoted to the latter. And the City's official marketing, tourism and partnership organization has a significant portion of its website geared toward helping visitors discover the best New York has to offer. I'd like to see Morgan Spurlock eat at some of these places for a month . . .

For years, big agribusiness has been accused of all manner of excesses — High Fructose Corn Syrup, diabetes, deforestation — craziness up to and maybe even including global mayhem. Fair enough — it's important to dig more deeply to see how your consumer choices affect the larger world. But closer to home there are other excesses that have deleterious effects.

The restaurant world is fascinating to me in that it might be the closest thing to a common culture that we have. Which is to say, a person may not appreciate both Miley Cyrus and Fugazi but that person would absolutely be into both Duke's Mayonnaise and David Chang. That's a tortured analogy, but as a purely sensual experience, food almost transcends taste — or at least we don't subscribe to or accept a Balkanized culinary environment like we do with other aspects of popular culture.

Which also is to say, there's something about how we eat at restaurants, or how we interact with restaurant culture, that deserves a closer look.

Posted: December 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Feed | Tags: , , , , ,

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