Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Transparency for Breakfast

These days a lot of people want to be careful about what they eat. Plenty of folks out there want to be sure they're getting the vitamins and minerals and whatever else they need to keep their bodies from breaking down like the slowly decaying organic husks they are, so that they can live longer and healthier lives and, if American, perhaps stress less over what the state of health care will mean for those first two things.

But these are also busy, just-in-time, go-go-go days. How many people have the time, energy, or inclination to prepare proper meals for themselves before or after work, when it's so much easier and more convenient to stop at a fast food place and let them do all the work for you in a jiffy? Personally, I buy microwaveable vegetable burgers in an attempt to do an end-run around at least part of that, but it's common. Nor is it necessarily conducive to a long and healthy life. It's just one component in the massive increase in obesity that's been happening in North America since the middle of the twentieth century - because people can't really know what they're eating.

Technically, that's not true. I know that in Ontario at least - not being a conoisseur of British Columbian fast food fare - you can go into a Burger King or McDonald's or what have you and find a nutritional information sheet posted on the wall somewhere; but it's out of the way and the font size is small, and if you had time to kill squinting at a column full of riboflavin percentages, you wouldn't be in a fast food place, right? Really, though, it's the sort of thing people don't tend to notice, and as a result it can't affect their habits.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. Soon after I landed in San Francisco, I stopped for lunch at the In 'n Out Burger at Fisherman's Wharf, and noticed that the menu board listed the calorie counts of all their items. What a sterling example of 21st century corporate citizenship! I thought. Then I noticed them in Burger King. And Starbucks. And Jack in the Box. And Taco Bell. And so on.

Obviously something was going on. There hadn't been anything like this in Phoenix this January - maybe it was just San Francisco. But what?!?

Presented for your consideration, four hundred and seventy calories in food form - specifically, a Carl's Jr. chicken teriyaki burger.

Back in 2008, California passed a law that, bluntly, required all restaurants that had twenty or more locations within the state to post calorie counts on their inside menu boards by January 1, 2011 - New York apparently pushed something similar through back in 2009, and the same sort of law is on the table in dozens of other American states. This is the exactly the sort of corporate transparency that I think needs to come to Canada, now if not sooner.

This is one of those things where, try as I might, I cannot twist my brain enough to come up with any valid reason to oppose it - if you can, please let me know, so I can contemplate it. There have been similar counts on potato chip bags, on pop cans, on chocolate bars and so on for as long as I can remember, and that sort of information is an invaluable guide - if you're really jonesing for chocolate but don't want to kick yourself over the standard calorie threshold for the day, it's really good to know which one has two hundred calories and which one has six hundred.

There's nothing about a "nanny state" in all of this - I say that because I imagine any potential opposition might come from that direction. No one is saying you can't order that thousand-calorie breakfast burrito. If you like it enough, and you acknowledge it in your fooding-up budget for the day, or just want that burrito, then by all means buy it and eat it. For me, though, it gives me the opportunity to look at the board and think that's a thousand goddamn calories? Like hell am I scarfing that.

It's all about choice, and the ability to make informed decisions about the things that affect us. That's what we should continue striving toward.

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