Can the Government Make Us Eat Better?

More cities and states are passing proposals aimed at improving our diets, but not without controversy

It’s not easy to change the public's perception of a bag of salty chips and a soda from snack of choice to health hazard. But that’s what New York City has tried to do. Four years ago, the city’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who describes himself as health conscious, took aim at trans fats sold in his city. For years, cakes and cookies were packed with oils treated with a chemical process to allow them to remain solid at room temperature and to remain on grocery shelves for weeks at a time. Problem was, as far back as 1950, trans fats were suspected in coronary heart disease and, later, connected to increased rates of Alzheimer’s disease and obesity. In April 2006, Harvard researchers published a study in The New England Journal of Medicine that determined that between 6 and 19 percent of heart attacks and deaths from heart disease in the nation could be attributed to consumption of trans fats. By the end of that year, Bloomberg demanded restaurants in New York City replace them with other kinds of oils. “Getting rid of trans fats is a relatively easy thing,” Bloomberg said at the time. “It doesn’t change the taste.”

Some restaurant owners grumbled. But soon, other cities–like Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston–as well as state officials in California were demanding restaurants and food companies stop selling food that contained trans fats too. Executives at McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken had already announced they were planning to switch to a “trans-fat free” cooking oil in their restaurants in the United States.

It’s hard to argue that banning an ingredient that’s been linked to heart disease isn’t beneficial to our health, but getting rid of trans fats alone may not do much to address the larger health problem many Americans struggle with: obesity. Obesity remains a major risk factor for heart disease, the nation’s top killer, as well as other health conditions. So how to encourage people to control their weight and eat less? New York City officials’ answer was to demand next that restaurants chains post calorie counts on their menu or menu board by the spring of 2008.

The New York State Restaurant Association responded with a lawsuit, citing the First Amendment. But a judge sided with the city. The effect on consumers was almost immediate. Researchers at Stanford University who studied customer habits at some Starbucks locations in New York City from January 2008 to February 2009 (the period in which the calorie postings went into effect) said that when faced with the actually number of calories they were planning to consume, customers cut back: food calories decreased 14% per transaction.

But it wasn’t just upscale double latte drinkers who were making better choices after viewing the nutritional content of their menu choices. A study published in February 2010 in the journal Pediatrics reported that mothers made better choices for their children—ordering items with about 100 fewer calories--when provided with calorie information.

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