September 6, 2017 – Something for Ontarians to chew on
As the summer feeding frenzy draws to a close it’s worth reflecting on this inaugural season of the Province of Ontario’s Healthy Menu Choices Act, which went into effect this past January.
If your road trip took you to a restaurant chain with 20 or more outlets, the government was there to rain on your parade with too much information. If the family-owned chip truck was your pit stop of choice, the mystery of your meal remains unspoiled.
It’s too soon to tell if this initiative will achieve its desired result — the lowering of obesity rates. Generally speaking, though, the theory that an informed consumer is a healthier consumer has yet to be proven. In spite of nearly a decade of menu labeling experimentation south of the border — the state of New York was the pioneer in 2008 — the studies have been numerous and the data mostly underwhelming. In November 2015, the New York Times published a scathing editorial calling the initiative a “failure.”
Anxious to know if Canadians will be more obedient to, or at least more motivated by, caloric visibility, I conducted a totally unaccredited Facebook survey recently to which, not including wise-crackers, 32 friends provided measurable responses.
Nearly 19 per cent chose option ‘A’: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” Approximately 30 per cent charted themselves between ‘B’ — “I kind of give a damn but my old fave is the status quo” — and ‘C’ — “WOW! That’s a lot of calories. I’m going to try to give a damn tomorrow.” A full 50 per cent, however, chose option ‘D’: “finding something with fewer calories.”
Admittedly, my survey was heavily skewed by educated, white middle-class women over age 30, a demographic Harvard researcher and Professor of Public Health Policy Sarah Bleich calls “a powerful market segment who increasingly demands healthier options and greater transparency from the food industry.”
In a February 2015 article for HealthAffairsBlog, Bleich and fellow researchers Julia Wolfson and Marian Jarlenski explored some of the “indirect effects” of menu labeling laws, including “social spillover.” “In an effort to attract this group,” wrote Bleich and her co-authors, “food outlets … will likely compete for health-conscious consumers and may introduce new lower calorie options to respond to public demand.”
A reduction in rates of obesity might have been the intended main course, but changes to the food industry are, for now, the more tangible side-dish.
Earlier this year, for example, Subway stores in Britain announced they will have removed 3.7 billion calories from customers’ diets, mostly through a beverage partnership with a soft drink maker known for offering a wide range of zero-calorie or reduced-calorie beverages. Changes such as these are good for public health, of course, but they’re also great for savvy food and drink brands that voluntarily embed themselves in a progressive trend.
Like it or not, we’re on the cusp of a food revolution whose timeline, in all likelihood, will prove similar to the normalization of seatbelts. The automobile industry resisted passenger restraints for decades before finally awakening to the business opportunity at hand. Nowadays, car manufacturers spend billions of dollars developing advanced safety features in an effort to stay competitive in an increasingly protection-minded marketplace.