Calories vs. common sense

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.

The $10,000 pizza delivery
Doubts on calorie counts


California banning trans fats

The California state legislature has passed a bill to ban trans fats in restaurants throughout the state, which is both unsurprising and stupid. Here’s the only interesting part:

The bill also allows local governments to create trans fat ordinances, such as San Francisco’s voluntary plan under which restaurants that pass a $250 inspection will be awarded a decal indicating that they are trans fat free. The city’s law takes effect this month.

Whether publicly or privately administered, a certification plan like that would be a better way to help concerned consumers avoid trans fats.Why not give the idea a try before coercing every restaurant in the state to change their menus?

Paul Roberts and I discussed trans fats in The Los Angeles Times last month.


Big Tobacco fights back

Apparently political contributions from tobacco companies are causing consternation in California right now:

The nation’s largest tobacco company has donated $50,000 to the Ventura County Republican Central Committee as the local party gears up to help GOP candidate Tony Strickland in what is expected to be a multimillion-dollar campaign this fall in the 19th Senate District…

The role of tobacco money in politics has long been controversial, and many candidates decline to accept contributions from the industry. However, health groups in Sacramento say the influence of tobacco money in politics is on the rise.

“There’s an alarming trend of the tobacco industry increasing its influence by ramping up its political contributions,” said Jim Knox, vice president of the American Cancer Society Action Network.

Knox noted the tobacco industry played “a major role in killing healthcare reform in California last year. They don’t issue press releases, they don’t testify at hearings, but they’re hard at work in the halls of the Capitol.” … Part of the financing of the healthcare plan was to have been a $1.75 per-pack tax increase on cigarettes.

If Californians don’t want tobacco money in political campaigns, they should stop bullying the smoking minority with exorbitant tax hikes. If they they think health care reform is an important goal, they should pay for it out of general revenues. What they shouldn’t do is bully smokers, tie their health care programs to a declining revenue stream, and act indignant when the tobacco companies fight back.

[Via Seeing the Forest.]

Boosting tobacco tax won’t serve kids’ health


A blow against CA raw milk

Raw milk dairy farmers in California have lost the restraining order that has been preventing the 10 coliform limit from taking effect:

A Superior Court judge said Friday that the state had a rational basis for creating legislation that imposes a higher safety standard for California’s two raw milk producers.

The two dairy operators — Organic Pastures of Fresno County and Claravale Farms of San Benito County — are battling to try to stop the state from enforcing the law that took effect last year, saying it will put them out of business.

The new law has been on hold since March, when Superior Court Judge Harry Tobias suspended it to hear arguments over whether to issue a preliminary injunction. Friday, the judge sided with the state.

Last month, two scientists testifying on behalf of the dairies argued that the new standard is unnecessary and that raw milk naturally contains helpful bacteria that neutralize bad bacteria.

But on Friday, the state presented its own experts who countered the dairy supporters, saying the new standard is designed to protect the public from food-related illness.

A rational basis standard is easy to meet, so this isn’t a very surprising ruling. The dairies could still win on appeal and will continue working with Dean Florez to introduce replacement legislation that allows a higher coliform count in exchange for additional safety standards.

California’s fight over raw milk standards was a major topic in my article for Reason.


No such thing as legal weed

Our government, unfortunately, has decided that paying humorless drones to evaluate alcohol labels is a worthwhile use of taxpayer money. They’re the reason why Lagunitas’ “Chronic” ale now bears a big “Censored” label and why St. George Absinthe Verte features a contemplative monkey rather than a monkey playing drums. The regulators have struck again:

Vaune Dillmann thought the wording on his bottle caps was just a clever play on the name of the Northern California town where he brews his beer — Weed.

Federal alcohol regulators thought differently. They have ordered Dillmann to stop selling beer bottles with caps that read “Try Legal Weed.” …

But illegal drugs are no joke to the federal agency, which maintains meticulous rules about labeling. Drug references on alcoholic beverages were banned in 1994, agency spokesman Art Resnick said.

“We protect consumers of alcohol beverages against misleading advertising and labeling. That’s one of our primary functions. That’s what we do, as well as collect taxes,” he said.

The ruling is not so amusing to Dillman, who just dropped $10,000 on 400,000 bottle caps he can no longer use. And the man’s got a good point:

[The] native of Milwaukee said he wonders how some other brewers have gotten away with the names for their products, such as Hemp Ale or Dead Guy Ale. And he can’t understand how his label has run afoul of federal alcohol regulators who must surely be aware of one of the most famous advertising slogans in American marketing: “This Bud’s for you.”

[Via Slashfood.]