Put fast-food calorie content in consumers’ hands

Posted March 09, 2009, at 6:38 p.m.

We’ve all been there.

You’re late for an appointment and breakfast is a distant memory. If you don’t get lunch, you’ll listen to your rumbling stomach for hours. You’re trying to keep your New Year’s resolution to eat more healthfully, but you only have five minutes to spare and you can’t eat a salad while driving.

How does a spicy chicken sandwich with mayo and a soda fit into your goal of keeping your caloric intake around 2,000 calories per day? How many more calories if you add the small fries? How many calories are in the kids meal? Which has more calories, the tuna salad sandwich or the roast beef sandwich? How can you make a healthful lunch choice while still keeping that appointment?

Every day, countless Mainers face this scenario. The convenience that fast food provides is undeniable, but, unfortunately, so is the increasing effect of obesity on the lives of Mainers. And we know that fast food is a key contributor to increasing waistlines and declining health.

This year we are proposing a common sense law requiring national chain restaurants in Maine to post calorie contents on their menus. (A chain is defined as any Maine restaurant that has 15 or more locations nationally.) This legislation will provide essential health information to help all of us make more informed choices. It will promote greater transparency for consumers.

We know that being overweight and obese results in higher rates of chronic disease, which negatively affects Mainers’ quality of life and increases health care costs. Currently, two-thirds of Maine adults are either overweight or obese — a rate that has doubled in the past 15 years. Obesity is associated with multiple health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, and arthritis.

Nationally, both mandatory and voluntary programs that place calorie content on menu boards at restaurants have been shown to positively affect choices made by consumers. Consumers often choose to eat less or make different choices about what they eat when they have basic calorie information.

Without nutritional information, many don’t know that a tuna salad sandwich from a typical deli has 720 calories compared to a roast beef sandwich with mustard, which has only 460 calories. Even trained nutritionists cannot make accurate estimates. According to a study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, when shown a typical hamburger and onion rings, dietitians on average estimated that it had 865 calories, when it actually contained 1,550 calories.

Last year, New York City implemented the first menu labeling law that applied to chain restaurants. Since then, the state of California and cities such as Portland, Ore., and Philadelphia have followed suit. Massachusetts is reviewing rules to apply the policy to the entire state.

This approach clearly has momentum. National companies, such as McDonald’s and Chili’s, are providing the information on their menu boards in New York City — a city of 8 million people and thousands of restaurants, and they will soon be doing the same in California. They should provide the same information to their customers here in Maine.

The federal Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 requires food labeling on almost all packaged foods sold at supermarkets, convenience stores, and other retail stores. About half of people report that the nutrition information on food labels has caused them to change their minds about buying a food product, according to a study by the Food and Drug Administration.

Whether you are dieting or just like to compare products, the information we’ve all had for nearly 18 years in the grocery store has helped Maine consumers make decisions. It hasn’t forced choices or told people what to eat — but provided them with basic health data. Our proposal aims to do the same thing in Maine for those restaurants that have both regular formula menus and have, for the most part, already successfully complied with this law in other parts of the country.

Obesity and poor nutrition affect everyone in Maine. They increase the overall health care costs we all pay and affect the health and welfare of our kids, families, friends and neighbors. Putting basic information in the hands of consumers will allow us all to take the lead in improving our health and the health of our kids and families.

Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, is the Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. She is the sponsor of “An Act to Increase Access to Nutrition Information.”

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