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    Archive for the ‘calorie labeling’ Category

    Calorie Counts Are Helpful, But Not The Answer

    Starbucks caloriesI know, I know.  I have been — and still am — a strong supporter of mandatory calorie labeling at fast food establishments and chain restaurants since day one.

    I am, however, concerned that too many people view caloric awareness as the sole key to health.

    While it certainly helps to know that breakfast item A can save you 400 more calories than breakfast item B, there are other important factors to keep in mind.

    Take a look at some items that are calorically decent but nutritionally horrific!

    Remember that for saturated fat, someone on a 2,000 calorie diet should not surpass 20 grams a day.  While I believe that value can be more flexible if saturated fats are mostly coming from cocoa or coconuts, the items listed below contain vast amounts of the very atherogenic saturated fats in dairy.

    For sodium, the recommended limit is set at 2,400 milligrams.

    Au Bon Pain:

    • Mac & cheese soup: 442 calories; 16.5 grams saturated fat

    Chili’s:

    • Guiltless Grill chicken salad: 361 calories; 1,385 mg sodium

    Denny’s:

    • Broccoli and cheddar soup: 374 calories; 19.5 grams saturated fat
    • Chicken wings & buffalo sauce appetizer: 300 calories; 1,940 milligrams sodium
    • Side of everything hash browns with onions, cheese, and gravy: 480 calories; 3,820 milligrams sodium (!!)

    Dunkin’ Donuts:

    • Strawberry coolatta (16 ounces): 300 calories; 16 teaspoons of added sugar

    Olive Garden:

    • Minestrone soup: 100 calories; 1,090 milligrams sodium

    Panera Bread Company:

    • Clam chowder: 320 calories; 18.7 grams saturated fat
    • French onion soup (with croutons and cheese): 174 calories; 1,784 milligrams sodium

    Quizno’s:

    • Chicken noodle soup: 260 calories; 2,580 milligrams sodium
    • Fat-free balsamic vinaigrette: 120 calories; 1,170 milligrams sodium; 4 teaspoons added sugar

    Red Lobster:

    • Broiled seafood platter: 280 calories; 1,660 milligrams sodium

    While calorie counts are helpful for weight concerns, health is about many other factors.  Even if, down the road, all chain restaurants in the entire country provide calorie information, it is not a green light to make them a dietary staple.

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    In The News: Recount, Please!

    alg_mcdonalds_caloriesSome not-so-encouraging news courtesy of TIME magazine — “According to a new study published in the Journal of the American Diabetic Association… restaurant meals may contain a whopping 18% more [calories than advertised].”

    What’s most discouraging is that researchers Susan Roberts (professor of nutrition at Tufts University) and Jean Mayer (who works at Tufts’ USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging) focused their attention on fast food items that claim 500 or fewer calories — the ones most likely to be selected by calorie-conscious consumers.

    The moral of this story?  When it comes to your food, the only cook you can fully trust…. is yourself.

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    Liquid Bombs

    photo_nutrition_BV339aLet’s say you decide to treat yourself to a sweet concoction at Baskin Robbins.

    Your goal is to choose something that will satisfy your sweet tooth without overloading on calories and added sugar, so you figure ordering a small size of any treat will do the trick.

    Think again! Check out these mind-blowing nutrition figures.

    Remember, these numbers are for the smallest sizes available.

    Small Vanilla Shake (made with light ice cream)

    • 560 calories
    • 10 grams saturated fat
    • 0.5 grams trans fat
    • 450 milligrams sodium
    • 16 teaspoons added sugar

    To recap: 60 more calories than a large order of McDonald’s fries, as much saturated fat as 4 teaspoons of butter, and 6 more teaspoons of sugar than a can of Coca Cola.

    Small Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Shake

    • 750 calories
    • 20 grams saturated fat
    • 1 grams trans fat
    • 15 teaspoons added sugar

    That’s 210 more calories than a Big Mac, a day’s worth of saturated fat, and as much added sugar as 4 Pop Tarts.

    Small Strawberry Shake

    • 560 calories
    • 15 grams saturated fat
    • 1 gram trans fat
    • 14 teaspoons added sugar

    This offer 40 fewer calories than three soft beef tacos from Taco Bell!  You can get that same amount of saturated fat in 10 tablespoons of sour cream, and just as much added sugar in 12 Oreo cookies.

    Small Reduced-Fat Mint Oreo Shake (made with light ice cream and low-fat Oreos)

    • 620 calories
    • 9 grams saturated fat
    • 350 milligrams sodium
    • 18 teaspoons added sugar

    Small size, light ice cream, and low-fat Oreos — sounds harmless, right?  This contains 80 more calories than half a pint of Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream, as much saturated fat as a half cup of shredded Cheddar cheese, and as much added sugar as 18 chocolate Dunkin’ Donuts munchkins.

    Small Mango Fruit Blast

    • 440 calories
    • 20 teaspoons added sugar

    Don’t be fooled by the 2 grams of fat and 0 grams of saturated fat.  This smoothie contains 130 more calories than a large soda from McDonald’s.  As for the two grams of fiber?  They are tacked on with food starch, which does not provide the same healthful properties as the fiber found in food.

    Even the more reasonable options at Baskin Robbins have a few problem areas.  Consider a small soft-serve Cappuccino Blast, which clocks in at:

    • 280 calories
    • 6 grams saturated fat
    • 140 milligrams sodium
    • 4 teaspoons added sugar

    While the calorie, sodium, and added sugar values are okay, the saturated fat content is a tad bit high, and the presence of partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list isn’t very promising.

    This makes two things very clear:

    1. Calorie labeling needs to happen on a national level, so these figures cease to be surprising
    2. Perhaps we should really consider if a 16 ounce beverage can truly be called “small”!
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    The Olive Garden Ponies Up

    olivegardenAfter years of shrouding its nutrition information in secrecy, the Olive Garden recently unveiled calorie, fat, saturated fat, sodium, carbohydrate, and fiber values for all its menu items.  Sugar would have been more helpful than carbohydrates, but I digress.

    If you’re ready to face your fears, click here to check out the numbers.

    If you’re a fan of the chicken alfredo pizza appetizer (1,180 calories — yes, for an appetizer!), the lasagna rollatini with sausage (1,500 calories), the spaghetti & italian sausage entree (1,270 calories), the chicken & shrimp carbonara (1,440 calories), the white chocolate raspberry cheesecake (890 calories) or the strawberry-mango frozen margarita (350 calories), you may want to consider alternatives for your next visit!

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    Speaking With…: Brian Wansink

    This past Friday, Cornell University John Dyson Professor of Consumer Behavior and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Laboratory Dr. Brian Wansink stopped by New York University after being tapped as the second featured speaker of a new lecture series on nutrition and chronic disease.

    Taking off from his bestseller Mindless Eating, the talk was appropriately titled, “How To Turn Mindless Eating Into Healthy Eating.”

    With those prevously mentioned credentials, you might picture a stiff, “all business” type who solves complex equations in his head while half-listening to you.

    Dr. Wansink, however, is reminiscent of the cool high school math teacher who wanted you to learn — and have fun while doing so. His research explanations are peppered with personal anecdotes, comedy, and facial expressions that sometimes rival those of Jim Carrey.

    A few hours before his afternoon presentation, I sat down with Dr. Wansink for a one-on-one interview.

    If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Wansink’s work, please click here to familiarize yourself with his research before reading the interview.

    I get such a kick out of all your publicity shots for Mindless Eating [NOTE: see accompanying picture]. They’re great! Have they all been photographers’ ideas?

    Ha! Thanks. Yeah, I’ve had some really creative photographers who set up these elaborate shoots. Some of those popcorn shots literally took twelve hours, from setup to cleanup. There was a LOT of popcorn all over the floor at the end that had to be cleaned up (laughs).

    So, I recently read that all of this research started as a result of you wanting people in the United States to eat more vegetables.

    That’s right.

    How did you go from that to your current line of research?

    Yeah, before I started my dissertation [in the late 80s], I wanted to know: “why do you finish your vegetables sometimes and other times you leave them on your plate?”. “Why are you hungry for them one night and not the next?” That then evolved into the idea of environmental factors that affect our overall eating patterns. It’s a lot more complex than people think because so many of our eating behaviors are automatic. This is all about getting below that surface. One of my first research studies had to do with family serving behavior. We had people come in, eat, and then answer questions about what they ate.

    Then, we showed them video footage of their meal. It is amazing how many people flat out deny, or are not aware of, their eating behavior. You’ll say to someone, “you had three servings of peas.” They’ll tell you, “No, I only had one!” You feel like saying, “Well, unless you have an evil twin…”

    It’s not until you show them the videotape that they change their mind. I once had a woman cry when she saw herself eating on camera! My research considers three angles. Not only what people are eating and how much of it, but also with what frequency.

    How did all that research turn into Mindless Eating?

    In 2004, I was in France and thought to myself, “I’d like to write a book, but I don’t know if I want it to be academic or pop.”

    That year, Bonnie Liebman of the Center for Science in the Public Interest interviewed me for their Nutrition Action newsletter, and suddenly a lot of requests for book deal started coming in. Most of them were e-mails and, I don’t know, nothing really stood out. Then I got a letter — an actual letter! — from Bantam Dell Books. One of the things I liked about them is that, as they told me, they are in the business of creating “real books that people read.”

    Interesting you say that, because I think that’s definitely one of the factors behind the popularity of Mindless Eating. It is relatable for and interesting to the average consumer.

    So at this point, it’s been a few years since the book came out. I was wondering about recent developments. For example, have you conducted any research on the effects of calorie postings in fast food restaurants?

    Oh yeah, I was involved in a VERY well-done study with Carnegie Mellon in regards to calorie labeling. We looked at McDonald’s, Subway, and Starbucks in terms of what consumers were buying before and after calories went up. And, you know what? The results were indeterminate. They were all over the board. Some people consumed fewer calories, others didn’t. I would actually be suspicious of anyone who told you they have seen a dramatic effect as a result of calorie labeling.

    That strikes me as really odd. What are your theories regarding the results of that study?

    There’s a few things to consider. First of all, when it comes to weight loss, a lot of people think: Yeah, I wouldn’t mind losing ten pounds, but I don’t want to change a thing.” Then there’s reactance, which is a psychological term. It’s basically resistance. Reactance is at play when you’re in your car and the person behind you honks so you pull away more slowly than you would otherwise.

    (Laughs) Or when you know someone at a restaurant is waiting for your table, so you sit there and take a little longer.

    Yeah. So I think, in a way, some people are seeing these calories and thinking, “Oh yeah? Well, you’re not going to tell ME what to eat!” Something similar happened in a study I did with Cornell. So, Cornell has a huge dining hall that services about 1100 people at one time. I wanted to see what effect going tray-less would have. I thought it would have two positive effects — it would result in reduced waste and reduced calories.

    The idea being that people couldn’t pile everything on at once but instead had to get up from their table each time they wanted more food?

    Yeah, exactly. Well, the results came in, and that night there was roughly 30 percent MORE plate waste! I think it comes back to that idea of reactance, where people saw this and thought, “Fine, I won’t use a tray, but I’m not going to eat less.” “font-style:italic;”>But that’s not to say that I think calorie labeling isn’t useful. Let me tell you something. The other day I went to Sbarro and saw that the slice of pizza I wanted was 787 calories. Aaaaaaaah!! So I think these calorie postings are going to serve as incentives for these food companies to say, “Alright, wait a minute, I want to turn that 787 into 690.” I think it’s going to nudge companies to drop the numbers, and that’s what will, in turn, affect consumers.

    Speaking of consumers, you recently finished your one-year post with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion working on the Dietary Gudelines. How did that go?

    Oh, it was great! I thought I was on a mission from God! My last day was January 20, when the new president took office. I was literally sending e-mails at 11:59 PM on January 19. I was still e-mailing at 12:05 AM on January 20, and I remember thinking “Wow, they didn’t shut off my inbox!” Then I got up to grab something to eat, and about ten minutes later I came back and I no longer had access.

    Any sneak peeks as to possible changes we may expect in the next round of Dietary Guidelines?

    I was involved with the selection of the 13 Dietary Guidelines committee members, and 11 of them have a behavioral focus. They operate where the rubber meets the road. That’s important, because they take pages upon pages of data and transform it into information for the masses that can be summarized in just a few sentences.

    So to wrap up, I’m interested in hearing about research you are in the process of conducting now.

    Oh yeah, sure. Well, we’re looking at what happens to people’s eating behaviors when they sit next to someone who has a much higher BMI than they do. We are also doing a study where we have someone wearing a fat suit and going through one side of a buffet very slowly, serving themselves a lot of food. Everyone on the other side of the salad bar takes a much lower amount of food compared to when that person is going through the salad bar without the fat suit on. It’s the whole concept of mimicking the attractive person. It’s terrible, because weight is the last acceptable prejudice in our society and it can really be crippling to a person’s self-esteem.

    Lately, the concept of “nature vs. nurture” has become central to the issue of childhood obesity. Do you have any thoughts on that from a behavioral standpoint?

    Well, we conducted a study with 4 year olds. We gave all the kids a questionnaire to take home. The point of the questionnaire was to determine to what extent parents forced their kids to eat everything that was on their plate. Of course, we disguised those questions among lots of filler like “what is your favorite TV show?”

    “What color are your curtains?”, etc.

    (Laughs) Exactly. So the parents, on a scale of one to nine, had to rate just how heavily they enforced “the clean plate club” at home. So, you know, nine was “my kids HAVE to finish everything on their plate or there is some kind of consequence” and one was “Ah, if they eat, they eat. If they don’t, they don’t.” We discovered that the children whose parents insisted they finish everything on their plate served themselves approximately 40 percent more cereal in our study.

    Wow! And based on what you talk about in Mindless Eating… the idea that, once food is in front of us, it is very easy to eat it all, that’s a significant finding.

    Yeah, the thinking is that children who are forced to clean their plate feel like the have no control when it comes to food, so they find ways to reassert their control and independence.

    Well, it looks like we’ve actually gone over time, but this has been fascinating. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you!

    Oh, absolutely. Thank you and best of luck with everything.

    Many thanks to Dr. Wansink for his time!

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    In The News: Up Next… Indiana!

    More positive news from the Midwest — The Indianapolis Business Journal reports that “chain restaurants [with 10 or more locations] in Indiana would be required to make nutritional information available to customers at each location [either on a posted menu or printed documents] under legislation that has advanced in the Indiana House.”

    Lovely!

    I am still looking forward to the day these policies become federal, though.

    In the meantime, New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health is set to determine what effect, if any, calorie labeling has had on New York City’s fast food customers.

    Prior to the law going into effect, customers exiting various fast food restaurants were asked to submit their itemized receipts in exchange for a free subway pass.

    At some point next year — well over a year after calorie labeling went into effect — the same survey method will be employed.

    This should provide some insight as to whether or not this type of legislative strategy ultimately has a positive impact on consumer behavior (i.e.: are Starbucks customers now favoring 150-calorie biscotti over 390 calorie banana bread slices?).

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    In The News: Your Move, Minnesota

    I’m crossing my fingers that parallel proposals — to ban trans fats and provide nutritional information on menus — currently making the rounds in Minneapolis and St. Paul become a reality in the near future.

    Although there are no plans for for state-wide implementation of these public health nutrition policies, it’s still quite exciting to see them pop up in more cities across the United States with each passing month.

    For the record, “sixty-three percent of Minnesotans are either overweight or obese, according to the Department of Health.”

    The Minneapolis and St. Paul proposals, like most other cities’, “affect only restaurant chains with 15 or more establishments.”

    I take issue with such distinctions.

    Why should a fast food chain with 11 establishments not be held accountable?

    And why should an order of fries containing 4 grams of trans fat be granted immunity if it is served at a “mom and pop” restaurant?

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    Dear Governor…

    Several readers have e-mailed me over the past week asking what they can do — and who they should contact — to get mandatory calorie labeling in their state’s fast food chains.

    The folks at the Center for Science in the Public Interest kindly provide a form letter you can submit electronically to your Governor.

    If advocacy writing is your forte, you can always use that letter as inspiration for your own missive.

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    In The News: The City of Brotherly Love Gets Tough

    Add another city to the “calories on menu boards” list!

    On Thursday afternoon, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter “signed a bill that orders chain restaurants [— including coffee shops, ice cream parlors and convenience stores — with a total of 15 or more stores, whether in the city or elsewhere,] to display calorie, saturated fat, trans fat, carbohydrate, and sodium information [for all menu items by January 1, 2010.]

    The cherry on top? “Nutter signed the bill at the Center for Obesity Research Education at Temple University,” the Associated Press reports.

    I am personally looking forward to the day trans fat labeling becomes irrelevant following a national ban on restaurants’ use of partially hydrogenated oils (that is no starry-eyed dream — Denmark paved the way in 2003, and Switzerland followed suit in April of this year.)

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    In The News: An Odd Solution

    The San Francisco Chronicle reports that skyrocketing obesity and diabetes rates in India are leaving citizens looking for healthier alternatives to mithai — “sweet, fudgy goodies rich with cardamom, pistachio and saffron… eagerly eaten, given as gifts, [or] offered to the gods]” during annual Diwali celebrations.

    Partially due to an improved economy, many Hindus are opting to replace the sugary treats with clothes, electronics, and jewelry.

    Two interesting points stand out here.

    Number one: sales of sugar-free mithai are improving.

    Number two: the government has taken action by releasing “millions of tons of sugar into the markets… in a bid to drive down prices.”

    As you may imagine, both of these developments leave me shaking my head.

    First of all, sugar-free varieties of candies are not necessarily lower in calories.

    The overwhelming majority of sugar-free candies contain higher amounts of fat than their standard counterparts, often times resulting in mere 10 or 20 calorie differences.

    Remember, whereas sugar adds 4 calories per gram, fat contribues 9 calories per gram.

    Of course, the average consumer is not aware of this, and often finds themselves thinking they can eat more simply because sugar is absent. Not quite.

    And lastly, why on Earth is the government’s solution providing more sugar at lower prices?

    If a large percentage of the country is concerned about obesity and diabetes, cheapening sugary food is not the optimal solution!

    Why not look into long-term policy that can begin to address some of the population’s needs (for instance, calorie labeling)?

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    In The News: Missing In Action

    Ronald McDonald has some ‘splaining to do.

    His fast-food chain has been “awarded” the most violations for not posting calorie information on various of their New York City stores’ menu boards.

    In total, 682 violations have been handed out since April.

    “About 300 citations were issued during the first six weeks the rules took effect, which was considered a grace period, and did not carry fines. Since then, 388 violations were issued that carry fines between $200 and $2,000 each,” reports Crain’s New York Business.

    McDonald’s has acquired 103 violations, Dunkin’ Donuts is not far behind with 89, and local fried chicken chain Crown Fried Chicken rounds out the Top 3 with 39 violations to its name.

    “Some citations were given for non-compliance and others punished restaurants for not posting information the way the regulations require. For instance, a few restaurants were fined for putting the information in the wrong place or using lettering that was too small.”

    I notice the linked news article displays a sole comment from someone named “Joe” who claims calorie labeling is “nannying” and “a violation of… life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.”

    Considering the amount of people I have heard voice a similar statement, Joe is not joking.

    For the life of me, though, I have no clue what civil liberties are violated by asking restaurants to post calorie content information.

    I also fail to see how such a request can be considered “nannying.”

    Nobody is being forbidden from buying an 1,100 calorie milkshake. It isn’t taxed more heavily than a less caloric option. There isn’t a limit on how many times you can order it, or at what time of day.

    So where, exactly, is the “you can’t tell me what to eat!” defensiveness coming from?

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    In The News: October Surprise

    Some very surprising — and encouraging — news to share today.

    “Yum Brands, parent company to Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, [A&W, and Long John Silver’s, has] announced plans to begin posting product calorie information on the indoor menu boards nationwide at company-owned restaurants.”

    Wow!

    You read correctly — these chains are doing so completely unprompted. This is not the fast-food industry sighing, rolling its eyes, and begrudgingly “doing what it’s told”.

    The end result of this ground-breaking announcement is that 20,000 of these chain restaurants throughout the United States will post calorie information on their menus by January of 2011.

    Meanwhile, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King have announced they have no intention of posting calorie information where they are not legally required to do so.

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    In The News: The Dark Side of Calorie Labeling?

    How is this for an interesting spin on calorie labeling?

    “After students and parents raised concerns about displayed calorie counts leading to or worsening eating disorders, Harvard University Dining Services removed the index cards detailing nutritional information from dining halls this year,” CNN.com reports.

    Interestingly, Harvard was going above and beyond, listing calorie, serving size, carbohydrate, and fat information for their dining hall menu options.

    Although these values can still be found on the dining hall’s website, they are no longer displayed at the actual eating establishment.

    This decision makes absolutely no sense to me.

    I simply do not see the effectiveness of removing a public health information service that has the potential to benefit a large percentage of the student body because it can be harmful to a smaller contingent of individuals (although eating disorder rates in college campuses are high, we are certainly talking about less than half of the total population.)

    Besides, people living with eating disorders are usually hyper aware of caloric content out of their own valition.

    If anything, they are more likely to seek out that information online than someone with a passing interest in maybe, perhaps, somehow wanting to manage their weight more efficiently.

    Someone struggling with anorexia is already following an extremely regimented and restrictive diet.

    It is highly probable that they walk into a dining hall with a pre-established harsh caloric limit on their mind (rather than finding out as they stand in line that, oh, the sandwich they were thinking of getting adds up to 900 calories.)

    Although “Dining Services will continue to promote healthy eating among students through forums and information sessions,” it is a shame that calorie displays will be eliminated.

    If displaying actual numbers is out of the question, why not develop a color-coded range?

    For instance, a yellow sticker next to an item signifies “0 – 200” calories, a blue one signifies “200 – 400,” etc.

    And if the administration is looking to convey an overall message of wellness rather than strict calorie counting, how about displaying health-promoting banners and signs throughout the dining hall (i.e.: “Whole wheat pasta is a great source of fiber,” “Olive oil is high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats,” etc.)?

    What is your opinion?

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