Though I’m not sure I could stand behind all of it, I’m sympathetic to this column by Carol Hart expressing skepticism about the usefulness of mandated calorie counts:
Even the most rigorous attempts to come up with precise numbers for specific foods will fail because of the glorious complexity and natural variability of whole foods (and of the human beings who eat them). Foods are not stable combinations of discrete compounds, nor is the human body a machine that burns fuels in uniform accordance with physical laws.
For example, any sudden increase in fat intake can interfere with digestion of nutrients because the body will not have sufficient metabolic enzymes to deal with the surplus. Individuals may differ in their ability to digest specific nutrients, although this variation has not been much studied…
Numbers are easily misread or misinterpreted, a facet of consumer psychology that is regularly exploited by marketers and retailers in setting prices. If your $3.99 Subway Spicy Italian is listed at 480 calories rather than 500, you may perceive that number as four-something, and you may miss the fact that you have to multiply that by two in order to get the calorie count for the foot-long sub, which costs only $1.75 more. Ditto for your $4.99 Subway Melt with 380 calories. The over-reliance on numbers and labels in selecting foods is part of a larger issue that prescriptive nutritional advice, whether accurate or not, coaches people to regulate their eating by external tokens rather than by the internal and sensory cues that have served that purpose over millions of years of evolution.
I haven’t read Hart’s book, but I’m curious as to how she expects our evolved internal cues to be reliable given that we evolved in conditions of considerable scarcity relative to today’s cheap abundance. Her advice to think more about the whole foods that we eat rather than misleadingly precise counts of discrete nutritional elements, however, seems right on.
California is proposing to follow in New York City’s footsteps mandating calorie counts on chain restaurant menus, and as with smoking and trans fat bans, it’s likely that other jurisdictions will join them. Yet it’s still not clear that the mandates will do any good; they’re driven more by a classist desire to make fast food unattractive than by solid evidence of their efficacy. As Gary Becker says, “To better understand this movement against fast foods, one has to appreciate first of all that many individuals do not like fat persons.”
Before other states and cities jump on this bandwagon, they should give some study to the costs and benefits of New York’s mandate.