Beverage ban beats obesity?

Moderated by Rick Badie

The obesity battle made headlines recently when McDonald’s announced a menu makeover that includes calorie counts and New York City placed a 16-ounce size limit on non-diet sodas and sweet drinks. The burden of obesity looms large in Georgia, which ranks second for childhood obesity. Today’s writers debate the effectiveness of the calorie campaign and sugar war.

Commenting is open below Margo Wootan’s column.

An ill-advised move

By Karen Bremer

The notion of freedom of choice is essentially American. We choose our elected officials with votes and in our economic system, we vote with our dollars. But what happens when our voice and our choice become limited? Two recent stories about issues impacting our restaurant industry made headlines. One infringes on freedom of choice by telling guests what they can and can’t buy. The other promotes choice by equipping diners to make informed decisions.

A beverage ban approved by the New York City Board of Health states that “non-alcoholic sugary drinks may not be offered or sold in cups or containers that can contain more than 16 fluid ounces” … unless it’s from a grocery or convenience store. Here’s why this arbitrary, misguided ban unfairly targets restaurants: according to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the majority of consumers purchase their sugar-sweetened beverages from convenience and grocery stores!

The CDC data also indicates that sugar-sweetened beverages only account for between 5 to 8 percent of daily caloric intake. Added sugars consumed from sugar-sweetened beverages are down 39 percent with more low- and zero-calorie choices. And from 1999 to 2010, full-calorie soda sales declined 12.5 percent while obesity rates went up. Not only does this ban produce a false sense of accomplishment in the fight against obesity, it creates an uneven playing field for restaurants.

According to a recent poll conducted by the New York Times, 60 percent of New Yorkers believe that the ban is a “bad idea,” with a majority surveyed responding that the ban “infringes on people’s freedom of choice.”

It is my job to analyze how policy will affect the 16,000 eating and drinking places in the Georgia, and the over 380,000 people employed by our industry. I see this as the first step down a slippery slope. For example, what’s more American than apple pie? One slice has around 400 calories, more than the calories in a 32-ounce soda.

Should officials also place a ban on apple pie?

Now let’s take a look at the other restaurant story gracing the headlines: “McDonald’s posts calorie counts on menus.” This move, in anticipation of the new menu labeling requirements for restaurants with 20 or more units, puts nutritional information in the hands of guests. Our industry took a leadership role in shaping menu labeling legislation. Also, over a year ago the National Restaurant Association launched Kids LiveWell, a voluntary program with more than 100 participating restaurant brands committed to providing healthful children’s menu choices when dining out. These initiatives help educate the 130 million patrons served in restaurants each day on the nutritional content of food and beverages. They are our choices, for now, at least. You can choose to have your apple pie and eat it, too. Or you could opt for apple slices (15 calories) with your Happy Meal. With this enhanced information, let’s keep America and our freedom of choice healthy. Food and beverage bans are not the way forward.

Karen Bremer is executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association.

Labeling helps in the battle

By Margo Wootan

When a movement began 10 years ago to post nutrition information on restaurant menus, the industry resisted and said it couldn’t be done. But the recent announcement that McDonald’s will put calories on its menu boards is a sign that menu labeling is here to stay. It will have a positive effect on the choices Americans make and the items that restaurants serve.

Americans are getting more calories from outside the home than ever. About a third of our calories come from eating out, which is more frequently is associated with more calories and obesity, as well more saturated fat and sugary drinks and fewer healthy vegetables and fruits.

That the restaurant industry and convenience stores sell empty-calorie soft drinks in 20-ounce bottles and 32- and even 64-ounce buckets certainly doesn’t help. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed bringing serving sizes to a still generous 16-ounces.

Knowing calorie contents at the point of decision-making can make the difference between a relatively healthy meal and a disastrous diet-buster. At McDonald’s, many consumers will be surprised to find that some salads have more calories than some burgers, and that shakes often have more calories than burgers and fries. It’s great to provide people with nutrition information, but will it change what people order? While a few recent studies have found no effect, small studies lack enough statistical power to measure the public-health effect that can be expected from menu labeling.

Researchers at Stanford University found that menu labeling in New York City resulted in a 6 percent decrease in calories on average per transaction at Starbucks. Researchers estimated that if people made similar changes at other chain restaurants, that would result in a 30-calorie-per-person-per-day decrease population-wide. That is an important effect given that the obesity epidemic is probably fueled by about an extra 100 calories per person per day. Research on calorie labeling on consumers’ purchasing habits is still developing, and will evolve as we get used to having nutrition labeling at restaurants. And menu labeling is also affecting restaurants’ behavior. It has spurred innovation and reformulation, as companies have a new incentive to compete on the basis of nutrition as well as other factors.

A recent study found that in Seattle/King County the average number of calories in chain restaurants has decreased by 40 calories per entree on average since menu labeling was implemented. After calorie labeling went into effect in New York City, Starbucks cut 5 percent of the calories from its pastries and 14 percent of the calories from its drinks, on average. Applebee’s began featuring entrees under 550 calories. We’ve seem similar moves in the right direction from other chains.

Georgia’s adult obesity rate is more than 28 percent, double what it was 15 years ago. No one thing alone is going to reverse that trend. But menu labeling at restaurant chains is going to be an important part of the multipronged strategy we need to begin to arrest this expensive and debilitating public health problem.

Margo Wootan is is director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

By Yoni Freedhoff

Sometime in 2013, the Affordable Care Act — which mandates menu board calorie postings in chain restaurants — will come into effect.

Americans are set to become more aware of the caloric implications of their restaurant choices.

The idea is that consumers will utilize this information in their dietary decision making; the presumption is that the shock of knowing that their morning low-fat bran muffin contains as many calories as a Quarter Pounder may lead them to question that choice.

The hope is that, as consumer caloric awareness and decision-making increases, the nation’s collective weight might begin to decrease.

The most established menu board calorie labeling program stems from New York City.

Since 2008, restaurants with more than 15 nationwide locations have posted calories.

Preliminary research is fascinating.

Opponents spin the data to highlight that menu calories have a negligible impact on calories consumed and suggest postings are an exercise in nanny-state futility.

Proponents highlight the fact that for the 15 percent of patrons who identified menu board calories as being important to them, the postings led to an average per-meal reduction of 106 fast food calories.

Regardless of the law’s intent, ultimately what mandatory menu board calories will provide consumers isn’t a ticket to health or a forced hand for choice but rather just simple, identifiable information.

Therefore, the best question to ask is:

Will the provision of caloric information be useful to those who feel they are important?

Data from New York City is quite clear: menu board calories matter to those who care.

If we consider our rising weights to be analogous to a rising, flooding river, menu board calories are but one sandbag, and as Yale’s Dr. David Katz puts it, “To contain a flood, no single sandbag will do.”

Consequently, opponents of the provision of point-of-sale caloric information who point at menu-board calories and state that they’re not going to solve the problem of America’s rising tide of obesity might as well be pointing at a single sandbag and complaining that it doesn’t make a very good levee.

Given we cannot see, smell or taste the number of calories in our food, providing us with caloric information simply levels a playing field that to date might have had even people who care about calories believing that snacking on low-fat bran muffins during their coffee breaks was a healthful behavior.

That said, there are many more sandbags that we’re going to need to fill if we want to see this tide turn.

Yoni Freedhoff, a professor of family medicine at Ottawa University, is the author of  “Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work.”

10 comments Add your comment

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September 20th, 2012
8:29 pm

Stop Being Sweet said, “we can’t walk around with concealed weapons”

Well, yes we can and it is perfectly legal. I know by expressing inaccuracies as fact you hope that people will begin to accept it as reality. Then when the push comes to remove one more Constitutional Freedom people will just let it slip away.

Yes, soda is a trivial manner and I hate those jumbo sizes, but what right do I or the Mayor of some oppressive regime like NYC have to dictate that to others.

Stop Being Sweet

September 20th, 2012
5:20 pm

This sugar water regulation is the only way that NYC could push action through the system. They tried to remove sugary beverage (high calories, low nutrition) from the SNAP program and it was rejected in part due to the beverage industry freaking out. It’s the food and beverage companies that are funding the ad campaigns depicting Bloomberg as a nanny, which in turn gets people outraged that they’re not allowed to buy soda in larger quantities than 16 oz. in certain venues. Boo hoo.

Meanwhile, it’s law that kids can’t buy cigarettes, adults can’t take just any dugs they darn well please, we can’t walk around with concealed weapons, we have to drive the speed limit, pay taxes, send our kids to school, and do all kinds of things that the government requires.

The soda battle is about corporate profits, not personal freedom or responsibility.

We still have freedom of choice: Coke or Pepsi?


September 20th, 2012
3:25 pm

When you see things like this you begin to realize that America is finally “Jumping the Shark”.


September 20th, 2012
2:44 pm

I am of the opinion that Mayor Bloomberg’s actions regarding the banning of Large Beverages was a prudent and health conscious thing to do for his citizenry. When burgeoning back ends and front ends are ever so growing before all of us, its cost effect on our already struggling healthcare system does not need the extra weight.

This is a mayor that knows how to walk the walk and talk the talk. For example right here in Atlanta in zip code 30331. The zip code of some of Atlanta’s most affluent and educated African American community. For a few years now this zip code has led the nation of new Diabetes diagnosis. Outside of a very small medical community this is not a widely known fact. One must ask why is this so? is environmental? the water? or diet?

These are the things that should be discussed openly and by everyone including our city leaders. these are real health and safety issues that any community and or communities should be acutely aware of. So I say to mayor Bloomberg, Bravo! only if other communities had such an advocate fighting on their behalf.

too little time

September 20th, 2012
2:39 pm

The government, telling people what to put in their own bodies, it should not

The goverment should not be telling people that, by law, they must have health insurance, either. But they do. And since they do, those of us who are healthy weight, normal blood pressure and cholesterol are going to demand that the obese, diabetic lardazzes get their act together. When I don’t have to pay for it… I don’t care what people do with their own bodies. When I have to subsidize it, though, it is time for anyone with a BMI > 25 to lose the weight. And if government can force me to buy insurance, it can force them to eat less.


September 20th, 2012
11:41 am

Once we start down the slippery slope of allowing nanny government to ban things like soft drinks there’ll be no turning back.

A better way to address obesity is to make it easier for people to exercise. Requiring that every new roadway has a sidewalk and a bicycle path would be a good start.

[...] ban beats obesity? – Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) USA TODAYBeverage ban beats obesity?Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog)This move, in anticipation of the new menu labeling requirements [...]


September 20th, 2012
10:52 am

So, our all-knowing “government” will let me have a wire coat hanger & a vacuum cleaner hose stuck in my body to murder my unborn child, but I cannot make the choice to imbibe a 24 oz. Dr. Pepper over a 16 oz. one?

“Keep Your Laws Off My Body!” ???


Master Yoda

September 20th, 2012
10:46 am

The government, telling people what to put in their own bodies, it should not.