Nuances of Nutrition Labeling

Last night Governor Schwarzenegger passed a bill (SB 1420) that will require chain restaurants in California to post calorie information on their menus and menu boards by 2011. All chains with 20 or more locations must offer information about calories, saturated fat, carbohydrates and sodium content for each menu item. Beginning July 1, 2009, they will be required to have brochures with this nutrient breakdown for customers who request it. So far this type of legislation has been enacted in cities (including New York, Seattle and San Francisco) and counties nationwide, but this is the first statewide mandate of nutrition labeling.

Consumer groups and health organizations may be rejoicing that this is a landmark step towards the fight against obesity. However, many health professionals will agree that this is by no means the magic bullet. We all know that obesity is a complex issue that depends on food intake, physical activity, lifestyle and environment, genetics, pre-existing health conditions and many other factors. In addition, knowing the caloric information of a food item doesn’t always lead to behavior change of the consumer. According to Dr. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, "nutrition knowledge can influence choice among some groups, but there is no compelling evidence that information and labels influence consumption volume" (from his De-Marketing Obesity paper). Based on her extensive research, Dr. Barbara Rolls, author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan, also finds that people tend to eat volume, not calories (here’s a list of her research papers).

Another nuance to the nutrition labeling law is the degree of accuracy of these calorie, fat, carbohydrate and sodium numbers. There is no reference in the actual language of SB 1420 that accuracy will be checked or enforced; even if thorough nutrient analyses were to be conducted (using computerized databases), the margin of error may be more than negligible.

A very timely and thorough article in the recent Journal of the American Dietetic Association (JADA 2008;108:1418-1422) addressed the complexities of nutrient analyses. According to the authors, exisiting databases such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference are fairly outdated. Most of the analyses in this database were conducted 20 years ago and assessment methods (and I would argue the actual foods even) have changed since then. They also point out: "other factors that can affect nutrient data include product variety, soil and growing conditions, ripeness at time of harvest, diet of animals, length of storage, preparation method, length of cooking, and shrinkage or volume change during cooking." So, even if employees at chain restaurants are following standardized recipes, there is a degree of variation in the preparation and handling of the food that will surely alter the nutrient content of the menu item.

Although it may be useful for the consumer to know these approximate nutrition estimates, I believe that focusing on the caloric content of food misses the forest for the trees. Last week Harvard Dining Services actually pulled calorie information from their dining halls because it seemed to exacerbate or lead to eating disorders on campus. So maybe there can be such a thing as too much information. People make food choices for so many different reasons (as they should) and calorie content usually isn’t the highest on the list. How about food cost and accessibility? If we make healthful foods more affordable and available, maybe more people will choose them. How about more tasty healthful food in schools so our children grow up enjoying fruits, vegetables and whole grains?

Whether or not calorie labeling will ultimately affect consumers’ food choices and help combat obesity continues to be a hot topic of debate. What are your thoughts on the issue?

– Katherine Kwon, MS, RD, Communications Project Manager