Earlier this month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) published a report analyzing the nutritional value of some commonly-ordered dishes at Ruby Tuesday, On the Border, the Cheesecake Factory, and other popular chain restaurants.
Amazingly, CSPI found that bacon-cheeseburger pizza and peanut-butter-cookie-dough-chocolate cheesecake aren’t healthy. As the report explained, without a hint of sarcasm, “the numbers were shocking.” Turns out that today’s “restaurants now dish out even more calories, even more bad fat, and even more sodium” than the restaurants of yesteryear.
Who would’ve thought?
CSPI issued the report to rejuvenate its support for the Federal Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) Act, which would force restaurant chains to publish nutritional info next to the name of every standard menu item. The measure was introduced in both the House and Senate in the last Congress and is expected to be reintroduced this year.
Schoolmarmish alarmism is nothing new for CSPI. The Columbus Dispatch once called CSPI “the nation’s mirthless nanny about food and drink,” and the organization has been sounding the alarm on soda, caffeine, salt, sugar, fat, alcohol, pizza, mozzarella sticks, and, well, everything else that’s tasty for more than 35 years.
Today, CSPI is one of the country’s most influential advocacy groups, with an annual budget of $17 million and around 900,000 subscribers to its monthly newsletter. And thanks to its frequent studies and dependably inflammatory rhetoric, CSPI is popular with the press. Their latest report made it on CNN’s American Morning and a host of local news outlets.
Consequently, as Jacob Sullum once pointed out in Reason, “[CSPI] has the ability to grab headlines, kill sales of products it doesn’t like, and shape regulatory policy.”
Just look at Procter & Gamble’s olestra, a fat substitute approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use as a food additive in 1996.
When first approved for consumption, there was much hope that olestra would shrink America’s collective waistline, because the calorie-free additive gave foods the same texture as those fried in oil.
But thanks to the efforts of CSPI, snacks made with olestra were forced to include an FDA label that warned of “abdominal cramping and loose stools,” even though science was never able to demonstrate that olestra’s gastrointestinal effects were any worse than those caused by foods high in fiber.
And because of that warning label and the rhetoric of CSPI and its allies, olestra’s sales never lived up expectations. After all, bran muffins and baked beans don’t come with unappealing, government-mandated health warnings — because few people are going to buy a product that warns of gastrointestinal problems. These days, olestra is nearly impossible to find.
Or look at soda, which CSPI has called “liquid candy” since 1998.
In recent years, California, Connecticut, and several local districts have banned soda sales in their schools. Fearing lawsuits, the country’s top three soft-drink companies started removing sweetened drinks like Coke and iced teas from school cafeterias and vending machines this past fall.
Or look at trans fat, which CSPI first warned about in 1993. In December 2006, New York became the first U.S. city to mandate the elimination of trans fats from all city restaurants, and just last month, Philadelphia followed suit. Chicago, Seattle, Washington, and several other major cities are also considering trans fat bans, as is the entire state of Massachusetts.
So much for Tastykakes, Krispy Kremes, and greasy cannolis from Mulberry Street.
From olestra to soda to trans fat, the problem for CSPI is that it doesn’t like the choices Americans make. So it wants to use the regulatory authority of the government to force businesses to follow its choices instead. Menu labeling is no different.
First, it’s incredibly impractical. Whereas pre-packaged foods are always the same size, restaurant portions are not standardized — and simply cannot be.
Burger King, for instance, can ensure that its Whoppers are made with 4-ounce burger patties on sesame seed rolls, but can it really ensure that every employee uses the same amount of mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, ketchup, onion and pickle?
And once menu labeling spreads — as it certainly would — does anyone actually want restaurants to serve identically-portioned slices of filet mignon and Chilean sea bass?
Further, menu labeling is unlikely to have any actual impact.
Since the May 1994 introduction of mandatory nutrition labels on packaged foods, America hasn’t slimmed down one bit. Instead, it’s gotten fatter. Just like nutrition labels, the only people who would take advantage of menu labels are already health conscious.
Indeed, because nutritional analysis an incredibly expensive undertaking, menu labeling will do little but drive up the cost of dining out and drive smaller restaurants out of business.
No one denies that Americans are fat. And if anything, we’re getting fatter. Whereas 6.1 percent of American children between 12 and 19 were obese in 1974, nearly 16 percent are obese today.
But, as DC-based writer Sam Ryan once wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “We’re fat by choice, not because we’re stupid or ignorant. Some of us enjoy stuffing our faces with double-burgers, extra cheese… We know that fruits and vegetables are healthier for us than ice cream and Cheetos.”
The problem for the folks at CSPI isn’t that people don’t know that the Cheesecake Factory’s Outrageous Chocolate Cake is chock full of calories, but that they just don’t care.
After all, if demand for healthy foods were higher, then America’s most-popular chain restaurants would be forced to revamp their menus. But maybe — just maybe — people who order Ruby Tuesday’s Colossal Burger don’t care about the nutritional value of their food.
When CSPI issued its most recent report, the organization’s executive director, Michael F. Jacobson, complained about “lasagna with meatballs on top; ice cream with cookies, brownies, and candy mixed in; ‘Ranchiladas,’ bacon cheeseburger pizzas, buffalo-chicken-stuffed quesadillas, and other hybrid horribles that are seemingly designed to promote obesity, heart disease, and stroke.”
His rhetoric, as always, was designed to scare people into supporting CSPI’s latest cause. Instead, it just made me hungry.
David White, a writer in Washington, is a regular columnist for Brainwash. He is also the host and producer of Inside Washington Weekly, a weekly podcast from America’s Future Foundation.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Andrew Stiles