Friday, October 05, 2007

Should restaurants be required to list calories and fat grams on their menus?

Again, this was a matter of debate at, where writers are invited to express their opinions, for or against. This is what I wrote.

Should restaurants be required to list such information on their menus? I can think of a simple way to circumvent that problem. Have the wait staff memorize and recite each item instead, but then I would probably have to listen to all sorts of disclaimers about the increased risks of heart attacks and strokes from consuming one of those meals. My ears would clog and my blood pressure would rise from having to listen to all those asterisks. You want cream* and sugar* with your coffee*? Here, you'd better read this first.

Time for a reality check.

I used to make a marinade I sold in the Orlando, Florida market. It was my own recipe and the first thing I did was call the FDA to find out what I needed to do to make it shelf stable. The advice the kind man at the other end of the phone gave me was just that. What he told me was common sense and not governed by law. One of the things I remember was that I should put a lot number on each bottle to protect me in case of a complaint. That way, if I produced a thousand bottles in a particular batch and there was only one complaint, certainly, I was not at fault. 999 bottles stood behind the integrity of my product and, obviously, other factors were involved, such as whether the person marinated the food in the refrigerator, as I clearly instructed on the label.

He told me to take random bottles to a testing lab to ensure that bacteria levels were safe. They were and this protected me and the consumer. Back then, small batch food goods did not need labels listing "Nutritional Facts", but I thought it was only right to provide information anyway and it made me look more big time than I was (the FDA defines a small business as one with food sales of less than $50,000 a year or total sales of less than $500,000.) Needless to say, it was not cheap. I had to give up my secret recipe to a different type of testing lab in order to determine the nutritional values, but my secret was safe with them. When you make thousands and thousands of bottles of marinade over a period of many years, one should feel compelled to offer practical and educational information to allow the consumer to decide, whether law or not. Besides, the cost was passed on at the wholesale level and given the price of the lab work, it didn't amount to too much in the overall scheme. Initially, yes, but not so much in the end because it worked by volume sales.

Since the FDA's effective date of May 8, 1994, I have been reading nutritional labels on all sorts of packaged food items I buy. I have been aware of trans fats for a long time and I insisted that nothing of that nature would ever go into my product when I made it. I used olive oil. My marinade was low in fat, sugar and sodium and packed with flavor. Since being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes last year, I am even more keenly aware of what I eat and I read labels with a vengeance now. Have you heard of "interesterified soybean oil" or "high in stearic acid"? I have and I've written about it on a diabetes post.

By replacing one fat with another less saturated one, has it made it safer to consume? Labels on packaged goods don't tell you that and they aren't required to do so. For example, a recent study of interesterified fat was found to depress the level of HDL (good cholesterol) more than trans fat. In addition, it raised blood glucose levels and depressed the level of insulin. This suggests that interesterified fat could lead to diabetes. The nutritional panel alone does not paint you (oil base, of course) an entire picture, so you've got to read the list of ingredients, too, to formulate what may or may not be healthful to eat. I wonder what type of fat is replacing partially hydrogenated ones in the restaurant industry as many of them now tout ZERO TRANS FAT!? Something to chew on and I guarantee it won't be listed on any menu.

In the late sixties, through the seventies, I was in the restaurant business. I think we can all agree that it is a very competitive industry, but do you have any idea how much it would cost to produce such information? OK, perhaps the big shot corporations can absorb the cost and pass it on through a modest increase in price since they deal in volume, but what about the small Mom & Pop shops? How can they cost effectively do what the Dardens of the world can do? If Olive Garden sells a spaghetti with meatballs dish with nutritional info for $8.95, how can Momma Lombardo down the street compete after paying the cost of a lab test? She has to sell her dish for $13.95 to recoup. Where went the competitive edge? What about daily specials? Would poor Momma have to send off a list of ingredients for testing before she could offer it? How can a profit be made on a one time special, made up that day at the whim of the chef because an exotic fish became available if the proprietor must send the recipe out first for scrutiny and inspection? Meanwhile, the fish and tomatoes are rotting while she awaits the results. Maybe, the chef makes up the dish as he goes and continuously samples and adjusts it. Needs a little more wine, less chicken stock, he thinks. Oops, I smell a lawsuit because the data doesn't match the end result. The food police are on their way!

What about government sanctioned standardized guidelines instead, made readily available (for a fee) to businesses and open for the taking, so that a particular dish sold at any restaurant should approximately contain this amount of calories, fat and everything else required by law to disclose? Offer different versions on the list, from rich in calories to guilt-free. Categorize lists according to cuisine. Remember, I did not have to place nutritional facts on my marinade bottle. That was left for mass produced products. Some restaurant chains already list information on the menu or on a separate sheet and it helps with sales as more and more diners become nutritionally savvy, but big chains can afford dietitians. A lot of their food comes out of regional commissaries. Would I want to require it? No. Let supply and demand dictate whether it is offered. If customers demand it, restaurants should supply it. Or don't eat there. Soon, the message would become clear by the empty tables if that's what people want. Personally, I don't want to ruin my appetite by having to read what I already know might not be good for me. Not on the menu, at least.

Lobster Bisque....................................................................................9.00
Our secret family recipe, just the right serving size of 637 calories, made with 68% of your total fat 25g (100%), saturated fat 15g (60%), trans fat 3g (15%), cholesterol , etc., etc., etc. % of your daily values, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Yummy.

Prime Rib..........................................................................................28.00
Depends on whether you eat the fat or not.

Offer a separate printout if it must be required and place it on display for consumers to take or leave. Does the government really have to tell me this menu is USDA, United States Disclaimer Approved, before I order Momma's special, Fettuccine Alfredo, made with cheese, heavy cream, egg yolks and a dash of statin, and it's about to fill me with a month's worth of badness at one sitting? It kind of takes the fun away from eating out. Maybe, I'll call for takeout instead, but then, I'd have to listen to all those asterisks over the phone first.

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