Unless you live in a faraway cave, you cannot have avoided hearing about the FDA's proposal for a formal regulation to impose calorie counts in chain restaurants with 20 locations or more (think your favorite fast-food joint), along with bakeries, grocery stores, convenience stores and coffee chains.
If you live in New York, you may have already become accustomed to seeing how many calories there are in your morning muffin at Starbucks or in your "Slim" sandwich at Pret a Manger, as this state was ahead of its time and has imposed calorie counts since 2008.
What triggered the FDA to make such a broad decision as this one which is likely to impact a slew of eating joints? (An estimated 280,000 out of the 600,000 existing across the USA could require calorie counts on their menus!)
The answer: rampant obesity and the fact that we eat 33 percent of our meals outside the home. Though the FDA's decision seems like a smart counteraction at first glance; if we examine similar proposals made in the past, unfortunately, it doesn't hold much promise.
Has obesity been reduced since complex food labels with calorie and nutrient counts have been imposed on the majority of the foods we buy? Not at all -- as you can read in a Feb 2011 study, published by the International Journal of Obesity: "Child and adolescent fast-food choice and the influence of calorie labeling: a natural experiment" led to the following conclusion, "We found no statistically significant differences in calories purchased before and after labeling"
We can thus conclude that food calorie labeling does not impact children and adolescents' behavior.
Now with the new FDA rules, we might assume that adults will be more permeable to this type of information and will hence modify their behavior. Or will they? Because in truth, the problem is not when we eat at cafes and restaurants, but rather when we eat in places where food should not be an option: gas stations as well as movie theaters are exempt, along with airplanes, bowling alleys and other industries whose primary business is not to sell food, according to the FDA.
Interestingly enough, movie theaters were initially included in this new regulation but they lobbied hard to be exempt -- and won. Well, it seems that lobbies have been able to extirpate themselves from this embarrassing regulation. So, a movie-goer still won't know how many calories there are in a large tub of popcorn with melted butter (hint: depending on how much butter is used, a jumbo pack can contain up to 600 calories) or a large ice-cream (can exceed 500 calories), and in the same vein we'll remain in the dark as to the calorie count of snacks ordered on board a flight, in the three slices of pizza downed while bowling, or the snack bar on hand while filling up the gas tank. And this is precisely where unnecessary calories are eaten:all throughout the day.
Since, based on the International Journal of Obesity, it does not seem that we can modify the eating behavior of a nation by educating it with food labels (however frightening they may be), should the government simply take a more drastic stance and prevent non-eating places from selling food? After all, do we really need to be able to buy food at the gas station? When I was a kid we never ate at the movies. Do we need to eat at a baseball game? What has happened to our society that we need to eat every time we sit down?
I can already hear voices of those who assert free choice and the belief that government should not regulate. But it seems that things have really gotten out of hand, and the accessibility of food in unlikely places (I even found a vending machine at a funeral home not long ago!) has generated new habits in society's eating patterns, making snacking at a gas station while inhaling the fumes of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons totally acceptable, almost normal.
Going back to our roots -- eating at meal times, together, with wholesome, hearty food -- seems daunting to some and almost impossible to the vast majority. Is it really? It only appears so because of the billions spent on marketing those new "nutritional" conventions on TV, making us believe we need to eat as many calories as a lumberjack, and propagating nutrition myths: morning snacks are essential, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, don't go for your 2-mile jog without an energy bar, don't take your kids to the park without their little crackers or they might starve, etc. Indeed, we have been brainwashed into thinking that we truly need to eat throughout the day to be healthy (five small meals a day, anybody?).
This is the root of the problem. Whether we see food labels with calorie counts (with sometimes meaningless ranges mind you, like: "calorie range: 310-980") will not impact our behavior.
Not seeing the food will.