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Cutting the Fat: New York Slims Down and Gets Healthy, By Law

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Maybe it's because Morgan Spurlock's fast food documentary, Supersize Me, was made here in New York City? Okay, probably not. More likely it's because this is a place that always wants to be on the leading edge of any trend. Whatever the cause may be, the fact is that New York City and State officials have been more and more inclined to litigate with regard to the quality of food available to its citizens.

I am, for the most part, totally for this movement. Recently I've been particularly impressed with a demand that was fought tooth and nail by the chain restaurants of the city. Having lost a fierce battle, any food operation with more than 15 locations nationwide is now required to post caloric values for all menu items. They won't be getting away with printing up a pamphlet and then hiding it behind the counter either; the information must be displayed prominently.

This is precisely the kind of action I feel is necessary. It doesn't tell any consumer what he or she can or cannot do; it simply gives each person enough information to make a properly informed decision. The restaurant postings are even backed up by an ad campaign on the subway encouraging appropriate daily calorie consumption.

I can just see people standing at the fast food joint, thinking to themselves: Hmm, if I'm only supposed to have 2,000 calories today, maybe I won't have the cheeseburger; that's almost a thousand calories all by itself. As far as I'm concerned, labeling laws such as this should apply to every fast food or family restaurant chain in the country.

As far as the infamous trans-fat ban, now fully enacted here in New York City, I (and many others) feel that the city went about it in the wrong way. Rather than putting a flat-out ban upon the substance citywide, I believe it would have been more effective to use a tactic similar to the calorie disclosure scheme: require that food establishments clearly label which items contain or get cooked in trans-fat, and let consumers decide for themselves.

I have a feeling that many restaurants would have voluntarily dropped the trans-fats, as after all "trans-fat" is the new "cholesterol." It's practically cussing at this point; no business would want to print it on a menu.

Then there's the so-called fat-tax, a statewide measure which proposes a 15 to 18% tax on sugary soft drinks. Its intention is to address increasing rates of obesity, particularly in children; it would reduce the consumption of "liquid candy" while generating significant revenue for the state. The revenue would then be spent on health campaigns.

In all reality it doesn't seem so different from the cigarette tax that has now been in place in the city for several years. However, by the time the cigarette tax was made law, the vast majority of adults already regarded smoking as an unhealthy and undesirable habit. After decades of campaigning by groups like the American Lung Association, the general public had accepted the carcinogenic realities of tobacco smoke; it was then not such a shock for civil officials to place health over vice.

Conversely, the long-term effects of imbibing copious amounts of high fructose corn syrup have only just begun to be studied. We as a society are still far from reaching the conclusion that it is a substance that should be considered dangerous or taboo. In short, the New York government is probably jumping the gun on that one.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is the most recent New York official to weigh in on how to address poor diet habits and ridiculous food-sourcing practices that are rampant throughout the island. On Saturday, February 7th, Stringer released a report called Food in the Public Interest; among his main concepts are creating tax incentives to encourage supermarkets and greenmarkets to move into areas currently lacking in food resources, placing restrictions on fast food restaurants, and directing city agencies to source 20% of foodstuffs from within a few hundred miles of the city.

These strike me as fairly logical steps to take to begin to combat what is a widespread and ever-growing issue. As Stringer stated at a press conference Saturday, "Our stores are full of apples that come thousands of miles from New Zealand and Washington State, rather than hundreds of miles from New Paltz in Ulster County or Whitehall in Washington County, New York. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers live in ‘food deserts’ where there isn’t enough fresh food."

The issue of produce shipped needlessly across countries or oceans is one that drives me mad each and every time I shop for groceries. My attempts at purchasing bell peppers provide one good example. Bell peppers are one of the few vegetables that I will only buy if organically grown, because when grown "conventionally" they tend to be among the crops most heavily doused in pesticides.

Among numerous other negative aspects, these pesticides are made of petrochemicals, the use of which is now well understood to be a short-lived endeavor. Imagine my consternation, then, when the only organic bell peppers available were shipped in from Holland! Any illusion of sustainable agriculture disappears when a trans-Atlantic journey is involved.

The concept of 'food deserts' is one that has now been thoroughly examined – and by Yale University, no less. In two studies conducted last year by Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, researchers dissected what most city dwellers already understand: that lower income neighborhoods often have little or no access to fresh produce or more healthy versions of processed foods.

The result? As stated in one of the Rudd Center's reports, entitled Access to Healthy Foods in Low-Income Neighborhoods, "[l]ow-income people, minorities, and rural residents suffer the highest rates of preventable, diet-related diseases linked to insufficient consumption of healthy foods." Given this truth, the wisdom of encouraging real grocery stores and greenmarkets to establish themselves where previously only bodegas (i.e. convenience stores) could be found cannot be denied.

The consensus among the leaders and the edified seems to be that it is time to take decisive action. For those who may have to change their ways or (heaven forbid) lose profit, though, it's a different story. It is expected that soft drink giants Pepsi and Coca-Cola will have a strong word or two to say about the fat tax proposition should it near legislation. I doubt these megaliths will be heartened by the fact that sources as prominent as MSN are advising investors not to purchase their stocks in light of the proposed tax.

Susan Neely, president of the American Beverage Association, doesn't seem to be happy with the fat tax suggestion either; she has been quoted as calling the tax "misguided" and "ridiculous." The ABA's science and policy expert, Maureen Storey, went so far as to provide testimony in Albany on Monday that there is no sound research showing a link between soft drink consumption and obesity. Incidentally, until 2004, the ABA was known as the National Soft Drink Association.

As to local food sourcing for New York City agencies, Karen Karp, a food consultant for the city, stated "we need citrus, we need coffee beans, we need sugar all year round… It’s a bigger picture than just apples and carrots." Well, 20% local still leaves 80% from whatever sources the city agencies deem fit, does it not? And, Ms. Karp, I strongly suggest you make your way as soon as possible to one of New York City's numerous greenmarkets. There you will be able to see for yourself the bountiful, gorgeous array of just what is produced within the state of New York. I'm relatively sure you'll find more there than apples and carrots.

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About Melissa Bastian

  • Doug Hunter

    This is following a logical progression similiar to tobacco with the labeling then taxes, then bans, etc. I do agree with the labeling step. Past that you’re getting back to the nanny state, but that seems to be the trend these days. I don’t for the life of me understand it, but sadly it’s the world in which I’m forced to live. I suppose humans were built for dependence and slavery and in the absense of, actively seek them out.

    The freedom to do only the ‘right’ things isn’t really freedom at all.

  • http://toomanycombined.blogspot.com Melissa Bastian

    To Doug Hunter,

    I think we’re mostly in agreement. The labeling requirements are a great step; consumers have a right to know what they’re eating, and the rules shouldn’t be different for restaurants than they are for prepared food makers. I personally hope the next step is a readily available ingredient list.

    The trans-fat ban, though, was absolutely in nanny state territory, which is why it has angered many people. I would not be surprised if it gets repealed in the next few years.

    The “fat tax” rides the line – while it isn’t stopping anyone from buying a coke, it is somewhat prohibitive. The comparison to tobacco is so easy to draw and so applicable that I couldn’t resist.

    Essentially, while consumers deserve complete disclosure of information, they also deserve to make decisions for themselves.

  • Doug Hunter

    “Essentially, while consumers deserve complete disclosure of information, they also deserve to make decisions for themselves.”

    That’s very true. If the government wants a more active role it’s needs to be in education and information (like labeling). I’ve long thought we should include basic life skills in a high school education. A bigger focus on practical things like meal planning and nutrition, budgeting and finances, and even taxes and voting/community service would be helpful.

  • Cindy D

    Melissa,

    Great article. I am glad you persisted. I hope you write more.

    I love, love, love your blog. It is a wonderful read. :-)

  • http://toomanycombined.blogspot.com Melissa Bastian

    Thank you very much Cindy! I truly enjoy writing about the subjects that I choose, and I always hope that that comes through in the writing. I’m glad that you liked this article. And yes, I’ll be writing more. :)

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    I’m not sure that posting calorific values of foods in restaurants is going to have much of an effect on obesity, at least not in the short term.

    You don’t usually see folks in supermarkets checking the nutritional information on foods unless they’re the sort of calorie-conscious people who do it anyway. Someone who walks into Burger King for a Douple Whopper with cheese is going to order a Double Whopper with cheese, and isn’t going to pay any mind to how many calories or grams of fat are in it.

    As someone who does try to watch my calorie intake it’s a welcome idea, but it should only be regarded as one weapon in the arsenal of all-around health education.

  • http://toomanycombined.blogspot.com Melissa Bastian

    Whether or not the calorie postings will have an impact on obesity is up to individual consumers – and that’s the point. The fact is that most people have no idea that one fast food sandwich can contain 1200 calories (or more). Perhaps, armed with this knowledge, over time people will be able to make more appropriate food choices and become healthier as a result.

    When the knowledge is unavailable or is unreasonably difficult to get, as is so often the case, this process can’t occur. If people choose to ignore the calorie listings, that’s their prerogative. But again, that’s the point – once the information is in full view of the public, consumers have the choice of making decisions based not just on advertising gimmicks and appetites but also on nutritional fact. Without the postings, the daily value of those menu items is anyone’s guess.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Indeed. But also, it’s not just calories. Most processed foods are so loaded with salt and/or sugar and/or fats that a lot of people have no idea what the actual food tastes like. I well remember my epiphany whilst sitting in McDonald’s one day munching on a Big Mac, and suddenly realizing that all I could taste was salt and fat – there was no beef, cheese or salad flavor to be detected. Even the bun didn’t taste of anything. I might as well have stayed at home and eaten a stick of butter.

    Consequently, a lot of foods that are marketed as ‘healthy’ or ‘low fat’ are anything but healthy – because the manufacturer has loaded the product with salt to disguise the absence of fat taste. It’s best to treat most ‘healthy choice’ products from major food manufacturers with a good deal of suspicion, because the sodium content of a lot of them is off the scale.

    Most people don’t know that. And don’t know, either, that ‘sugar-free’ is sometimes a better choice than ‘fat-free’, because sugar is loaded with instant calories and the manufacturer will put more of it into the fat-free products, again to compensate for the lost fatty taste.

    Hence my argument for a broader approach, although of course calorie advertising is a good start.

  • http://toomanycombined.blogspot.com Melissa Bastian

    Fun fact: the “taste” in fast foods actually comes from added flavorings, most of which are manufactured in New Jersey. Any flavor that was originally in a product, particularly in the meat, disappeared months and many processes before it reached any consumer.

    I fully agree that there needs to be way, WAY more public education with regard to the actual nutritional value of the foods available in the modern world. That’s precisely why I spend a fair amount of my free time attempting to spread the knowledge. The book that I tagged for this article – Marion Nestle’s “What To Eat”, is an awesome place to start.

    While it wouldn’t be possible to have fast food joints post full nutritional facts or ingredient lists on their menu boards, we sure could require them to make pamphlets available with all of that information. And not just “available” as in four of them are stuck behind the counter somewhere, glued together with dried out bar-b-q sauce. As in, stocked in prominent displays in the ordering and seating areas at all times.

    As far as health claims on packaged foods, here’s a good rule of thumb: the harder a package is working to try to convince you that its contents are healthy, the higher the likelihood that it’s actually junk food in sheep’s clothing. That’s a subject that I’ll likely write a full article on at some point.

  • Cindy D

    …most of which are manufactured in New Jersey…

    lol. Yes but we also make Steeleye Span CDs here :-)

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ Roger Nowosielski

    Hope you’re doing OK. Sorry for having been such a hard ass.

  • http://melissabastian.blogspot.com Melissa Bastian

    Ha, not trying to dis on the Garden State! It’s just that for some reason, all the big players in the flavor industry (yes, there is such a thing) have established plants there, and as a consequence an estimated 2/3 of all natural and artificial flavorings are produced there.

    If you haven’t read Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation”, you should definitely give it a whirl. (Other than addressing the same subject matter, it has very little in common with the movie that was made of the same title.) The chapter of the book that deals with flavorings is one of the best. My favorite passage:

    “Before placing each strip of paper in front of my nose, I closed my eyes. Then I inhaled deeply, and one food after another was conjured from the glass bottles. I smelled fresh cherries, black olives, sautéed onions, and shrimp. Grainger’s most remarkable creation took me by surprise. After closing my eyes, I suddenly smelled a grilled hamburger. The aroma was uncanny, almost miraculous – as if someone in the room were flipping burgers on a hot grill. But when I opened my eyes, I saw just a narrow strip of white paper and a flavorist with a grin.”

  • Clavos

    Doc,

    Check out one of the the Eat This, Not That books. Their thesis is similar to what you’re saying and they’re well written. Their greatest fault is that they barely scratch the surface.

  • Cindy D

    Melissa,

    That’s okay. Most of the Garden State is misnamed. It’s more of an industrial state. Well, some parts.

    I really appreciate the info on the McDonald’s junk food. Once in a while my husband wants to eat there. For health reasons it’s important to know exactly how much sodium, cholesterol, saturated fat is in any given thing for him. Not everyone is able to eat everything.

    They also put salt on everything. So, you can ask them not to do that to. Even the french fries.

  • http://toomanycombined.blogspot.com Melissa Bastian

    Honestly I would suggest Marion Nestle over “Eat This, Not That”. She provides way more information on what we actually need nutritionally, as well as how the food industry became what it is. The “Eat This, Not That” series really just swaps out one junk food for another – while the suggested swap my reduce calories or fat, it’s still not a good path to optimal food choices.

    It’s the difference between the down-to-earth, accessible teachings of an NYU PhD who specializes in nutrition and public health, verses what are ultimately fad books that tell people that eating junk is A-OK… just so long as they pick the right junk.

  • Clavos

    It’s the difference between the down-to-earth, accessible teachings of an NYU PhD who specializes in nutrition and public health, verses what are ultimately fad books that tell people that eating junk is A-OK… just so long as they pick the right junk.

    Which is exactly the value in the Eat This, Not That books, since, as Doc pointed out, those inclined to eat in a fast food joint will not be dissuaded from doing so by books that tell them they shouldn’t; whereas offered a choice available at their favorite fast food joint, they might actually eat healthier, even if not healthiest.

  • http://toomanycombined.blogspot.com Melissa Bastian

    I have many mottoes, and one of them is this: better is not the same as good. These books perpetuate the idea that you don’t really have to change anything about your eating habits to have a healthier diet. They’re basically telling people what they want to hear, which is why they sell well. People don’t want to hear that eating at Mc D’s is never a good option. Well sorry folks, but you know what? They don’t sell one single meal (or menu item for that matter) that won’t make a nutritionist cringe.

    Sure, you might have shave a few hundred calories off of your meal by choosing the cheeseburger instead of the chili bacon burger, but in the end you’re still eating crap. Calories and salt and fat content are not the end all be all of what is in our food.

    Call me an idealist, but I hold out hope that even people who really enjoy eating fast food care enough about their own health (and about the numerous other factors that are harmed by the fast food industry) to eventually make a real change in how they eat.

  • Clavos

    They don’t sell one single meal (or menu item for that matter) that won’t make a nutritionist cringe.

    The point is, the kind of people who eat regularly in burger joints aren’t interested in ideal nutrition. To the extent the Eat This, Not That books recognize how real people living in the real world are likely to act, I see them as more likely to actually help those people than a book, no matter how academically accomplished the author, which demands they completely revolutionize their eating habits.

    In fact, unless it’s made statutory, very few people will ever eat the way nutritionists would like them to.

    I don’t think I’d care for a world where such personal choices are regulated.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Check out one of the the Eat This, Not That books.

    [sigh]

    Just bought one, yesterday.

    Bloody Costco…

  • Cindy D

    what no gravy?

  • STM

    Clav: “The point is, the kind of people who eat regularly in burger joints aren’t interested in ideal nutrition”.

    Not sure about that Clav. If you discount any salad that might inadvertently find its way onto the burger, a burger meal generally contains three of the essential food groups:

    Fries;

    Burger;

    Coke/Pepsi

    On subsequent nights, you can have top up for a balanced diet with some of the others: KFC, and pizza, for instance.

    Hope your missues is OK mate. Please keep me up to date.

    [edited]

  • http://handyfilm.blogspot.com handyguy

    I have had the experience of changing my mind before ordering because of the menu calorie postings in NYC. At Starbucks, every pastry is at least 500 calories…even the ‘healthy’ bran muffins.

    You can just ignore the postings I guess, but they do sort of take my appetite away, and I wonder how it has affected sales.

  • http://toomanycombined.blogspot.com Melissa Bastian

    I’m not suggesting that everyone should stop eating fast food and immediately adopt a diet of kale and spirulina shakes. I certainly don’t eat that way. And the books that I’m suggesting people read don’t require that people “completely revolutionize their eating habits”- that is a broad and untrue assumption to make. In fact, neither “Fast Food Nation” nor “What to Eat”, the two books I’ve pointed out in this chain, suggest even close to as “revolutionary” a diet as I myself have followed for several years now.

    I just can’t support any book that’s essentially encouraging people to continue making poor food choices, even if that is how “real people” eat. There are enormous problems with the way “real people” are eating, and it does need to change – and not just from one burger to another. This fact is what New York government officials have recognized, which is what the article that this comment chain is attached to is about.

    Making the laws isn’t about creating a society where people are being forced to eat how someone else thinks they should. It’s more about giving people the opportunity to eat more healthily, and about stopping food companies from misleading their customers and withholding information about their products. For several decades now the companies which control our food supply have operated with a strong lean toward “profit at any cost”. Effecting us most personally, that cost is our health.

    Clavos, I don’t believe that we’re going to see eye to eye on this one, so I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree. I will not say that the “Eat This, Not That” books are completely without merit, but I will never suggest that anyone read them.

    Handyguy, that’s awesome. I’m glad to hear that you’re taking the information into account. Starbucks was one of the loudest opponents of the calorie postings, but they were also one of the first to comply.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    I love kale! I could live on it. Not sure what a spirulina shake is, but it doesn’t sound fun.

    I’m not too worried about the calories in Starbucks pastries. They don’t even taste good, so there’s no point in buying ‘em.

  • Cindy D

    Dr.D.

    Spiru-lina–blechhhhh!!!! You don’t even want to know.

    (but, I’ll tell you anyway)

    It’s algae. I knew someone once who ate it on crackers–the powdered form.

    I will take a cheeseburger, medium rare, with raw onion and to-mottoes. (hold the ketchup)

    Usually a baked potato, but on occasion, French fries with blue cheese dressing will do nicely. (that’s from living in California–ever try that Dr.D?)

  • http://handyfilm.blogspot.com handyguy

    Hmm, interesting, Doc, I’ve always been impressed by the quality of almost everything at Starbucks, including the pastries. They also have the best iced tea in the universe. Being a Brit and all, you are not likely to appreciate chilled tea, but still…

  • http://toomanycombined.blogspot.com Melissa Bastian

    I’ll admit it – I freakn’ love kale. You just have to know how to cook it. Sautee it down with some garlic and orange juice – yeah seriously. Totally awesome.

    As far as the Fourbucks pastries, well I don’t eat them anyway – none of them are vegan. ;)

    What I do love, though, is these Rice Dream ice cream bars covered in chocolate and peanuts – I work one into my calorie scheme every two weeks or so. Hey, a girl’s gotta have her treats.

  • Cindy D

    Everyone is so enthusiastic about kale. Makes me want to run out and get some right now.

    I like turnip greens. I forget what kale is like.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Kind of like mustard greens, only much tastier.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    I’ve got nothing against algae, Cindy, except when they show up in the bottom of my Brita jug!

    There was a breakfast spread called Barmene (similar to Marmite or Vegemite) which we used to eat as kids. Quite tasty. I think that was made from algae.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    You and your iced tea, Handy. No, you’re correct, it’s just not British.

    I’m so upset, in fact, that I think I’m going to have to go and make myself a cuppa right now!

    (Thank goodness you can get Tetley tea bags at Save Mart…)

    [potters off to kitchen, whistling ‘Rule Britannia’]