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Point/Counterpoint: Should food writers alert readers to health risks?

fava

Warning: this dish may contain fava beans (Credit: Wikimedia)

I recently got into a thought-provoking discussion on this blog with reader Kenneth Braunstein, who took umbrage with my many reviews of unhealthy, fat-laden hamburgers. Braunstein used this forum to raise the issue of responsibility in food writing. Namely, he asks if  critics should, as a matter of course, alert readers to health dangers lurking in restaurant food.

I asked Braunstein, who is a physician, to write an editorial. I responded.

Please let us know what you think about this issue in the comments section, and — please, please, please — keep it civil.

POINT: FOOD WRITERS BEAR A RESPONSIBILITY

By Kenneth Braunstein

Unfortunately, restaurant reviewers will usually cover how well the wait staff performed, the execution by the kitchen staff (i.e., was the food flavorful and properly prepared in a reasonable amount of time and as described in the menu), and was the meal worth the expense, but only occasionally use their bully pulpits to encourage serving healthful food.

Does the chef use hidden ingredients that may cause harm to his guests? Trans fats in the oils, high sodium loads, excessive carbohydrates, raw meats or fish, MSG, or fava beans are frequently never revealed on the menu. Gently or lightly seared has come to me as cold and raw in the center. Undercooked meats, fish, eggs, and shellfish may convey food borne infectious illnesses, such as E. Coli and Salmonella. MSG in susceptible people causes great discomfort. Fava beans can lead to severe and even lethal hemolytic anemia in persons of Mediterranean ancestry. The unexpected addition of diary products to a recipe needs to be cited so that lactose intolerant diners are forewarned.

Is the use of fats overly done? Their amount in meat products must be appropriate for the recipe. Greasy vegetables or worse vegetables with pork added as a surprise seasoning should be noted. Numerous reviewers admire how much bacon enhances certain dishes’ appeal. Besides upsetting vegetarians and violating several religions’ dietary laws, pork contributes saturated fat calories. These are issues, which deserve to be included in the overall evaluation of its application.

Is the restaurant sensitive to and knowledgeable about food allergies? Do they ask if you have any or must you bring it up? Will the chef have a clue about what you are talking? Shellfish, particularly tiny Pacific shrimp in Chinese “vegetarian” entrées, and nuts may not be mentioned by servers despite many of their customers having had allergic reactions to them including anaphylaxis. Gluten from grains is ubiquitous in Western cuisine and can cause serious diarrhea.

To accomplish this survey, a questionnaire could be sent to the restaurant prior to publishing the opinion. In addition, fat content, carbohydrate level, sodium load, and total caloric intake for the items ordered by the critic and his or her guests should be included. Finally, the sanitation rating of the establishment at time of visit would be mentioned. While these results are probably too awkward to be included in critiques proper, they maybe easily incorporated onto the website of reviewers.

COUNTERPOINT: DINERS SHOULD MONITOR THEIR OWN HEALTH RISKS

By John Kessler

Food writers are, by profession, omnivores. They eat and comment on any kind of food served in restaurants, even those items they personally don’t like. Readers are looking for advice on how to spend their money, whether on a $4.95 hamburger or a $175 meal for two in that new spot that everyone is talking about. As with chefs, the lifestyle can catch up with them. Some are overweight, others practice moderation and maintain a good exercise regime to keep the weight off. Few follow dietary restrictions, suffer from gluten insensitivity or have severe allergies that would prevent them from trying a variety of foods. If you don’t eat pork, pasta or peanuts in this business, you might as well look for a new line of work.

As some food writers joke, “We eat everything so you don’t have to.” This quip gets to the heart of the matter: Everyone is responsible for his or her own food choices.

Do food writers have a responsibility to point out that some dishes are rich, caloric and laden with fat? Absolutely. Should they balance their coverage of  all-American burgers and french fries with more healthful cuisines, such as Mediterranean and Japanese? Of course. Most professional eaters love these kinds of food and do more than pay lip service to them.

But when it comes to the hidden dangers of fava beans and gluten cross-contamination, diners should get this information directly from the restaurant rather than from a media source, one who could be held liable if the recipe were to change.

If people have dietary restrictions, they need to go right to the horse’s mouth and ask the restaurant.

67 comments Add your comment

K

May 14th, 2010
10:45 am

Great counterpoint, John. I don’t have any food allergies, but I have friends who do and when we go out it is their responsibility to ask the server if the dish they are ordering contains and shellfish, dairy, etc. It is the servers responsibility to know the ingredients in the dishes they serve, and if not, to find out from the chef. The thought of a server asking every customer if they have a food reaction is ridiculous and a waste of time, IMO. If you have health problems, it is your responsibility to monitor them and ask the questions.

When I read restaurant reviews, I want to hear about the food and overall experience. Not a technical analysis on the specific contents and nutritional values for each dish. If I’m going out for a burger and fries, I expect them to be unhealthy and will adjust my diet and exercise accordingly. It’s not the responsibility of the food writer to harp on these things.

Rachel Forrest

May 14th, 2010
10:55 am

I agree with you, John. I’m a restaurant critic and food writer in Portsmouth, NH and I try to balance out my reviews, covering all kinds of restaurants from vegan to gluten-free to places where the burgers are so huge and you can’t even hold them. I will point out if a restaurant has a good selection of vegetarian options and will note if there is something stated on the menu about which dishes are gluten free (but only because that’s so rare, it’s notable). I might go as far as saying, “No one really needs to eat this much food!” if the portions are huge, but other than that, it is the diner’s responsibility to decide if what I’ve described is a good place for them given their preferences and lifestyle. It is also their responsibility to work with the restaurant if there are dietary restrictions. There are plenty of restaurants out there and plenty of choices to make–everything in moderation. And now, I need to get out and run my 4 miles so I can keep on dining!

Amanda

May 14th, 2010
10:57 am

I fully expected Braunstein’s editorial to talk about calories, fat grams, the obesity epidemic, blah, blah, blah which shows how the whole “diet culture” disfuntion in associating health with low cal and low fat has invaded my brain. While I read this blog and work by other food writers in various publications to occasionally help me decide how to spend my food dollars, the main reason is for entertainment. The things Braunstein is asking you to include are simply boring and info I can find on my own if they’re important to me.

Puerquito

May 14th, 2010
11:41 am

Kenneth Braunstein aka Debbie Downer is an utterly ridiculous individual. Folowing his logic, humans should not experience sunlight because it MAY cause skin cancer and death. We should get our vitamin D thru a pill that has been cleared of any pathongens.
In his world, our food comes from factories that produce the safest of products – completely sterile and flavorless nutritional supplements.
Why deal with the dangers of mother nature when humans can create much more efficient/safe products in a lab?

entertainedeater

May 14th, 2010
11:45 am

Let’s not forget that the job of a food writer is not only to inform but also entertain. I very rarely visit a restaurant featured in a piece(I live a good ways outside the city). However, I love to read about them and feel as though I have been there myself. How entertaining would it be to have to trudge through a laundy list of stats such as caloric and sodium loads etc. It doesn’t take a mental giant to recognize that burgers will be high in saturated fat and fries will be salty…..

PaulD

May 14th, 2010
11:52 am

I entirely agree with John here – except for one point in Mr. Braunstein editorial. The health rating at the time of the visit should be included in the review – this is part of the overall presentation of the establishment and can be easily inserted along with the other items such as the average meal price, etc. at the top of the review.

Laverne

May 14th, 2010
12:01 pm

As civil as I can be : My RX for the Good Physician : A weekly dose of fried chicken every Tuesday night at Watershed – to be devoured wholeheartedly with gusto and delight. May be supplemented with field peas and greens. Follow dosage with chocolate cake. Repeat weekly until you smile again.

Puerquito

May 14th, 2010
12:13 pm

Kenneth Braunstein aka Debbie Downer probably does not go out during the day since sunlight MAY cause skin cancer and death…

Atlanta Native

May 14th, 2010
12:59 pm

Got to agree with you John. The “health police” approach to restaurant reviews is counterproductive. When I go out for a great meal, I throw caution to the wind. If you cannot figure out how to eat healthy in our society, you must not be able to read.

The health rating seems like a good item to report, though – if of interest. 92 who cares. 100 or 73, I’d like to know.

PS I put a post on your bio yesterday and would love any suggestions. Thanks.

kopp

May 14th, 2010
1:00 pm

Your point about being held liable for changes made by the restaurant is important. It seems that Braunstein wants someone to act as a combination health department/FDA/mother figure – and y’all don’t get paid for that. You get paid for your valued insight to food and basically how it makes you feel. That’s more important to most of us than how many grams of transfat is in the burger.

Cekker

May 14th, 2010
1:20 pm

Gotta go with you John on this one. It is the diners responsibility to ask about ingredients and preparations — not the critics. The critic can comment and ‘criticize’ but the diner is responsible for his own health.

I do think that critics need to be consistent though. It strikes me as odd to slam one restaurant one day for serving unhealthy food that isn’t even tasted (KFC) and then laud another the next day for serving food that is remarkably similar (all these burger-bombs you have been showcasing lately.)

Barbara

May 14th, 2010
1:24 pm

A food critic’s job is to write entertaining and informative articles that help the newspaper/website sell papers/eyeballs. That is first and foremost what they should do. They do that by giving their readers what they want, not lecturing and condescending to them.

I believe that Mr. Kessler’s public has spoken.

ps: No food column ever should ever have the word “diarrhea” in it, ever. If you eat somewhere that causes it – that information can be conveyed in euphemism.

Reds

May 14th, 2010
1:27 pm

I also have to agree with John here. I read this colum to get insight to what is being served places, and to dream. I also LOVE the way that JK writes, and it’s amusing to me. I think that it is my duty (not the restaurant reviewer) to check into any potential issues that might arise from allergys, dietary needs/restrictions, etc.

If John gets the cream based sauce on top of the fried fatty meat, and I know that I am trying to be more healthy, I know that that’s probably NOT what I need to get. Will i get it? Maybe or maybe not. Totally depends on what else is on the menu, and if i have room in the diet for it. You do not have to eat like a rabbit 24/7 to be healthy.

Hidden stuff is one of the only things that I somewhat agree with the good doc on. If I see something vegitarian, i wouldn’t expect it to have shrimp in it, and I do think that restaurants should be a little more open about what goes in to their dishes. My bf has a peanut allergy, not a severe one thankfully, but there have been times when we’ve gone some place that didnt advertise they used peanut oil and he’s had a reaction. But that is not the reviewers place to point it out. As JK mentioned…. menus do change. I think that menus should be a little more detailed because I do get a little frustrated when I pick something that seems to be healthy and then find out that it is NOT what I expected. Like the Thai Cilantro Sauce at Chow Baby. 23 grams of fat per scoop, and they recommend 2-3 scoops. >.< Then I read what was in it, and only use 1/4 of a scoop, with other healthier stuff when I go. But if i see something fried, sauteed, bruleed, etc I generally know what i am getting in to.

Kay Stephenson

May 14th, 2010
1:54 pm

I’m with John. There are already far too many people trying to police what I eat. I read yesterday that the FDA is now thinking about mandating lower sodium levels in food – levels that would put the country ham folks out of business. Read Federal War on Salt Could Spoil Country Hams. http://www.carolinajournal.com/exclusives/display_exclusive.html?id=6411
This when science can’t prove a correlation between salt and serious health problems. Salt intake is going up and heart attacks and hypertension are going down.
As for the food ratings, I should think that if the place has a food rating that makes it seriously unhealthy, the the reviewer would be wise not to eat there in the first place, let alone write an extensive review. If the health rating is fine, then no need to mention it.

The Nerve

May 14th, 2010
3:26 pm

Food critiques critique the food. It is not their job to babysit the reader on what they should eat. Be an adult and take reponsibility for what you eat. Dr. Braunstein desire for every type of allergy, taste, religious belief, dietary desires, etc, etc, etc, etc, remind me of political correctness gone wild. Ask these questions at the restuarant. My wife is a vegetarian and I eat anything, except raisins which are by far the most disgusting thing on earth, and we are alwasy able to safely negotiate our way through a menu. If the greens are cooked with ham hocks, she doesn’t order them. She wants a gluten free meal, she ask what is gluten free. Critics give us a direction, not a step by step memo on what to order.

steph

May 14th, 2010
3:26 pm

One more case were people want to blame everyone but themselves for the choices they make. When are people going to take responsibility for their own actions? If you are an individual that needs a food critic to tell you every little nuance about the harmful hidden ingredients, the possibility that you could get food-borne disease from shellfish and meat, and the exact calorie count of their meal then you deserve to be fat. Food Critics are there to tell you about how the food taste, the service, and their opinions. The diner is responsible for figuring out if or if not they can eat the food served and can make their own opinion accordingly.

John Kessler

May 14th, 2010
3:57 pm

Thanks for the thoughtful responses (and nice to hear from you Rachel, my most excellent North Country colleague). Don’t we have anyone on the other side? Mr. B., you have more to add about the upcoming health reform legislation?

Kenneth Braunstein

May 14th, 2010
4:26 pm

The recently passed health care reform legislation makes health care a right and places the Federal Government in charge of making sure each and every citizen receives adequate quality care. We the taxpayers will foot the bill. Obesity is the First Lady’s major public agenda item. Hypertension and diabetes are the Department of Health and Human Services’ main nutritional targets. They are the leading cause of stroke and heart disease in the United States. Obesity is a major contributing factor for them. In order to reduce the overall cost of health care in America, the government is already taking early steps to monitor and control the sodium and carbohydrate intake of its citizens. The breakfast and lunch programs in schools are its first regulatory programs. New taxes on foods high in carbohydrates, salt, and calories, such as soda pop and potato chips, are being proposed as means to fund the enormous budget overruns everyone is sure will be incurred by the government in its new endeavour. If the citizens do not voluntarily reduce their consumption of unhealthful foods, the government will most assuredly start to mandate it. I would rather have John Kessler tell me what and where to eat than President Obama.

Elizabeth

May 14th, 2010
4:40 pm

I have to agree with John as well. I also add that I do not eat meat except for occasional seafood items. I try to check ingredients in an entree at the restaurant before I order. I would not rely on a food writer to do this for me. If they happened to eat something and mention added pork, etc… that would be great. However, it is not their job to do what a diner should be doing themselves.

The Nerve

May 14th, 2010
4:47 pm

Good point Mr. Braunstein. Another sad and painful truth to that horrible bill.

I am also curious about the fava beans….they can really actually kill someone? What is the source in the fava bean, or the person, that would cause this?

The Nerve

May 14th, 2010
4:49 pm

Pardon me…Dr. Braunstein. No offense intended.

Kenneth Braunstein

May 14th, 2010
5:34 pm

To The Nerve: Fava beans cause Favisim. Favism is a hemolytic anemia (destruction of red cells) that can be lethal due to the very low levels of hemoglobin afflected patients reach. The people at risk for Favism are Mediterrians (Italians primarily, but also Greeks and Spanairds) with Mediterrian Glucose 6 Phosphate Defiency (G6PD). African G6PD does not appear to be suscetible to the severe hemolysis seen in the Mediterrian variant. Fava beans have recently gained popularity in foods not usually associated with Mediterrian cuisine. I have yet to find a chef who uses fava
beans in his or her restaurant who has ever heard of Favism. Despite what my opponents on this issue have said, most food critics are very interested in nutrition and have studied it to some degree. They also know how food is suppose to be made (i.e., what the recipes are) better than their average reader. Because of that, when they are testing out a restaurant they are better judges of health issues than the average diner. I wish they would share their opinions of the healthfulness of what is being served as well as how good it tastes.

Egger

May 14th, 2010
6:00 pm

I read restaurant reviews because I love the sensory descriptions of food and ambiance or of funny interactions with servers, not because I need to be educated on what is healthy or not. Judging on the comments already posted here, it sounds like people who read John’s column/blog are intelligent enough to figure out on their own whether a restaurant will have options that meet their specific dietary needs. Give us some credit, Doc!

Kenneth Braunstein

May 14th, 2010
6:25 pm

To Egger: Like it or not, no one except someone who actually is in a restaurant’s kitchen knows what is put in the food. Watch a couple of episodes of Gordon Ramsay’s Restaurant Nightmares. Food critics have enough clout within the hospitality industry to have those secrets revealed. When restaurants have been forced by law to list their nutritional content, many nutritionist, who are the best educated on this topic in the country, have been horrified to discover how much sodium, fat, carbohydrates, and calories restaurants have added to their items. You probably spend more time and do more reseach on the computers, software, itunes, and movies you buy than you do on what really goes into your mouth when you go out to eat. I know all of you know how good it tastes from your thorough investigation of the establishment prior to opening the front door, after all you have read John Kessler’s review as well as all of his bloggers’ comments. However intelligence is not an issue here. It is having the facts to use your intelligence to decide whether to eat at a particular restaurant. My suggestion is to place the nutritional information on the website of a reviewer so that those diners who do care what actually goes into their alimentary canal (I couldn’t resist a little medical terminology) can be educated consumers. As for asking food servers, restaurant managers, and chefs these questions, you will be surprised by the misinformation you will be given. Think about it. Do you really think a professional chef is going to tell you, “my food is really bad for you?”

Foodey

May 14th, 2010
6:36 pm

Sounds like an opportunity for a blogger somewhere.

Helen

May 15th, 2010
1:07 am

It sounds like the good doctor should remove the stick from his posterior. If one is too afraid of any type of cuisine that could be “offputting”, one should stay at home, cook their food the way that they would like and leave the rest of us alone. I suggest that the good doctor also never enter into the world of ethnic grocery stores, they might prove too disturbing for him/her to bear. Goodness knows we wouldn’t want someone needing therapy because they’ve seen a pig’s uterus, ears or intestines in the meat department of one of the ethnic markets on Buford Highway.

Morrus

May 15th, 2010
8:24 am

Curiously, in a supposed anti-incumbent year, most of the departing are not retiring but seeking higher office. We may recycle more than we replace. The bad news is that a frustrating 114 seats still have but one contestant. Two of them aren’t even incumbents, meaning they will affect state policy without being vetted by voters. And I have to think that we’d be better off if many had run instead for the Legislature — and cut down on the number running unopposed. Georgia’s problems are numerous. They aren’t going away. There’s too much stale thinking at the Capitol, on both sides of the aisle. New voices would be welcome.

chef speak...

May 15th, 2010
8:37 am

as a chef it is my responsibility to prepare delicious, flavorful food. it is my responsibility to provide a safe meal. it is not my responsibility to monitor the dietary restrictions of every customer who walks in the door. i will do my best to accommodate when the customer informs me of any restrictions, but if i am not able to i will inform them and they can make the choice as to whether to dine my establishment or not. i will also inform a customer of ALL of the ingredients in a dish when asked, instead of just the main items listed on a menu.
if the food police want to target fast food and industrial food then they will have plenty on their hands to deal with. leave us kitchen professionals who are informed about the source of their food and who know how to actually prepare something from start to finish, alone.
john, thumbs up….keep up the good work. your articles are enjoyable and informative, and you tell it like it is.

chef speak...

May 15th, 2010
8:59 am

and for the good doctor, i am curious as to whether you have information on all of the medicine you have ever prescribed listed on the walls of your office? ingredients, where it is produced, side effects, interaction information, long term effects. also do you tell every patient how the bed they are sitting on was cleaned and who did it and what cleaning product they used?. and do you inform of how you sterilize your equipment and dispose of your waste? maybe the government should start inspecting doctors offices and have a score by the door when a patient walks in and they can then decide if they want to visit the doctor. i am sure i am not the only one who seems to catch something AFTER visiting a doctors office. bet the AMA lobby would be more than happy to go along with this.

chef speak...

May 15th, 2010
9:02 am

(last one, i swear) maybe the good doctor would like to help us all and have his own show, Kenneth Braunstein’s Medical Facility Nightmares!!!

melissa

May 15th, 2010
9:28 am

food critics do exactly as they ought to, and need not add more responsibility which could take away from the quality of describing the food. and what is unhealthy for one person may be healthy for another, and vice versa. if someone is curious about the nutritional values of food served they should take that up with the restaurant, orconsult a nutritionist.

Kenneth Braunstein

May 15th, 2010
9:52 am

To chef speak: If you are willing to inform your customers about all your ingredients and will try to accommodate them with regards to their restrictions, why not do it formally. I was at one of the new highly rated restaurants in the city itself and the first thing the waiter asked was does any member of the party have a food allergy or special restriction. No one needed to ask. The restaurant took it as their responsibility to ask first. Why not have on the menu a list of all the unusual or unexpected ingredients that might cause someone to get sick. The Department of Agriculture has it. Why not describe on the menu as many steakhouses do what is meant by rare, medium rare, medium, and well done. If you are adding nuts or use nut oils in a particular dish, mention it. If eggs are used, mention it. If fava beans are an added touch, mention it. While you say you will inform your customers, have you thought about the disruption it will cause if customers regularly ask you these questions and you have to answer them on an individual basis. Telling a customer what you are putting in their food is no longer an option for chefs. The government is mandating that that information be available. Take off a month and read the health care bill that just was signed. At first, it will be in chains. Then they eventually will come around to the smaller establishments.

As for what you asked about my practice, yes we do that already. It is part of informed consent. Every doctor’s office has the PDR either in book form or online. Each pharmacy has the same information that is given to the patient on the patient information sheet. Medical Facility Nightmares is available at any county courthouse 5 days a week 9AM to 5PM. It’s called medical malpractice cases.

chef speak...

May 15th, 2010
10:07 am

do you hand the book or a computer to every patient who walks in the door? or do you expect your patient to take some responsibility and inform themselves along with your consultation?
i have the information available also but i am not going to put a book on each table with recipes and amounts and calories and how the liver breaks this down and how the colon breaks that down. if the government wants to mandate it then they can waste their time sitting in my restaurant enforcing it.
i have no problem informing customers as to what they are eating and how it is cooked and all of the above. but there are an awful lot of people who want to enjoy their meal and their dining experience without worrying about the side effects. eating is a sensory experience and most people do it because they enjoy it. as mrs. child’s used to say “everything in moderation”

chef speak...

May 15th, 2010
10:16 am

and let me be clear about one thing. we do take dietary restrictions very seriously. there are two paths this conversation has taken, one about personal responsibility and one about dietary concerns. i have focused mainly on personal responsibility. we print on the menu to please inform of any restrictions and we will do our best to take care of them. we will also inform if we cannot and they can chose to dine with us or elsewhere. our servers are not required to ask this but many of them do. we have always informed them to let us know of any restrictions and they can approach the subject as they see fit.
my daughter awaits…..to much computer time on this lovely day

hojo

May 15th, 2010
10:21 am

35rd ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Good Lord

May 15th, 2010
10:39 am

Leave me alone. Go away. Mind your own business. F off.

Beer and weed is not healthy either and life is short and then you die – what about it?

Rick Cole

May 15th, 2010
10:49 am

Food writers who want to be ignored should include all of Bruanstein’s concerns. I have lost my appetite for all of the whining and hand wringing coming from academics, the left and other societal busy bodies. I can’t believe Americans are willing to give their freedoms and choices over to these people.

Kenneth Braunstein

May 15th, 2010
10:50 am

To chef speak: When it can’t be easily done verbally, we will print out or copy the information that the patient needs and give it to them. Legally, I have to inform the patient as part of informed consent. The patient is legally not responsible to obtain that information.

As far as how difficult it would be to do what I am suggesting, it is not as hard as you imagine. Mostly you have either a more detailed listing of ingredients for each item on the menu or a sheet of paper with the pertinent information in the back of the menu or at the front desk for anyone who wishes to read it. As for the topic of this blog, the reviewer would have on his/her website pertinent nutritional information available for those who care about it. Personal responsiblity requires being able to obtain the information necessary to make the decision. Without nutritional information from the source of the food, no one will be able to make an informed decision. As for moderation, some food illnesses occur with a minimum amount of exposure. That is why it is critical to have food content readily available to customers. Why should someone drive for 30 minutes, wait in line to be seated, and then discover that the food is prepared in what for him or her is an unhealthful manner. Are you willing to go to the telephone to answer a perspective patrons questions before your restaurant is officially opened? Are you willing to do that in the middle of a busy service? The decision to dine with you should be made prior to leaving one’s house. Where will the customer get that information? Would you be willing to post it on your website? Should the restaurant reviewer provide it (supplied by the management of the restaurant and dated so that readers will know how current the information is to avoid the liability issues that JK referred to earlier) when he/she recommends the establishment? Or will the hospitality industry, because it didn’t do it on itsown, become as regulated as my practice? By the way, you have a business license. If you don’t do what the government wants you to do, they can take it away and shut you down.

Hungry Teacher

May 15th, 2010
12:04 pm

I think several posting should read “1984″, the book.

I am very allergic to some food items–have 2 Epi-pen at all times. I do question the wait staff for hidden items. I’ve never been treated rude or ignored either. Sometimes, they send the chef to come out and talk to me. That has always worked out for me. I prefer to eat at restaurants where things are cooked to order and the ingredients can be adjusted.

Yes John, the health score would be good. It is not easy to find unless you go in person. But I view this blog and cookbooks as kitchen literature. A good read; the rest is between my doctor and myself

The nutitional information is on the web site for many restaurants. Fast food places have it posted and McD has it printed on the wrappers now.

N-GA

May 15th, 2010
12:25 pm

Some people I know already take too long to decide what to select from the menu. I don’t want to give them an excuse to make it even longer by adding the equivalent of the PDR to the menu. The acid test of this issue would be to have a food critic/blogger who writes primarily about allergens, saturated fats, calories, etc. and see how long he/she lasts.

It’s too bad that this issue cannot be discussed without bringing partisan politics into the debate. On the one hand people complain when the government gets involved in an area some would prefer they stayed out of (health insurance) while at the same time seeming to support mandatory content disclosure of food info. Makes you conclude that as long as it represents what they think…………

Kenneth Braunstein

May 15th, 2010
1:18 pm

To Hungry Teacher: I have found that the staff, as you say, is usually very helpful when asked about this type of information. However, they (including the chef rarely) have given out misinformation due to ignorance not maliciousness. I will relate three actual events to illustrate what I personally have observed. I ordered corn chowder at a chain restaurant where the food is “made to order.” The soup it turns out isn’t. When asked, the waitress said there is no bacon in it. When tasted, bacon was apparent.The manager initially stated that there was no bacon in it. After 10 minutes of questioning his staff, the manager finally found the list of ingredients from corporate headquarters and, sure enough, there was bacon on the list. A well known Chinese restaurant in town lists stir fired French string beans on its vegetarian dishes list on the menu. When we took a friend there to dine and ordered it, she asked if there was any shrimp in it. I said of course not. She asked the waitress who agreed with me. My friend then insisted upon asking the chef, who we knew well, since she would have to use her Eli-Pen if there were indeed any unknown shrimp in it to treat her impending anaphylaxis. Once again, the wait staff was mistaken. Tiny Pacific shrimp were used in the dish per the chef who then made it without adding them. Finally, I was at a restaurant that served trendy American cuisine. An item had fava beans in it which were not listed on the menu. Out of curiosity I asked the chef if he knew about fava beans being potentially lethal to certain sensitive individuals. He had never heard about it. One last point,not everything at restaurants that claim to do everything made to order is actually made to order. One prominent seafood chain claims everything there is fresh. They even announce it when you first walk in their front door. The chicken and the soups are cooked at a corporate central facility and shipped to the individual restaurants. This is not mentioned on the menu.

I don’t think George Orwell would consider giving customer’s health information to be within the context of “1984.” Although if health issues were as much of a concern in the 1950s as it is now, Big Brother probably would be confiscating your kitchen literature and preventing blogging period. Giving you a heads up before you go to a restaurant, I feel is not a burden that any establishment that is going to charge you for their food should be unwilling to bear. Not every restaurant has a website. Unfortunately, many times a food critic will know more about health issues than some chefs (particularly, self taught chefs without formal training at a culinary school). Food critics are not viewed by restaurant owners as entertainment. They can make or break a restaurant. If food critics use their bully pulpit to insist that restaurants provide their patrons with nutrition information in order to get a favorable review, they will do it. When anyone recommends a business there is a tacit implied understanding that that business is ethical and will do you no harm. When a food critic recommends a restaurant, he/she is endorsing that restaurant. By that very act, the food critic at a minimum should provide nutritional information if the restaurant doesn’t have a website that does so to which the critic could refer the reader.

Finally, It will be a rare physician who on a Saturday night is going to answer your culinary question about a restaurant’s menu promptly. After going through the answering service and the usual and customary 20 to 30 minute wait for a return call from the doctor on Saturday night for a non-emergency call, you will more than likely get the covering doctor or nurse who doesn’t know anything about your case. Even if you do get your physician, your well fed friends and family will be waiting for you in the parking lot by the time you have finished your meal. Unfortunately, when you’re at a restaurant you will probably be on your own.

Kenneth Braunstein

May 15th, 2010
1:37 pm

To N-GA: Politics in this case was initially generated by those who wished to fund the current health care law in part by taxing foods that are considered unhealthy by the government, not by me. They have combined health insurance with what you personally choose to eat. The government now has a legitimate concern about what you eat since it may directly affect the ultimate cost of the health care it is directing and for which it is paying. Nutritional listings by restaurants are part of the bill. See Kay Stephenson’s comments regarding the FDA’s agenda posted earlier on this blog. I would like to correct one thing she said. Sodium alone does not cause disease. However, sodium makes certain conditions worse. Hypertension, congestive heart failure, renal failure, and premenstrual bloating are all more difficult to manage when the patient is eating foods with a high sodium content. Just as an aside, yesterday, Heinz announced that it is voluntarily reducing the sodium content in its ketchup.

Gabrielle

May 15th, 2010
2:25 pm

I agree with John, here, though I’m a vegan and am extremely limited as to what I can eat when away from home, unless I cart my own food around with me. If a food writer recommends a restaurant, it’s up to me to check out the menu and look for foods that I “can eat”, and see if there is anything I would “want” to eat. If I have questions about my own particular diet, it’s up to me to ask the chef, and/or the waitstaff. John, and other food writers are writing to share their views and opinions, which in a lot of cases are expert, but from the point of view of omnivores, as John points out.

No doubt there are gluten-free food writers, and vegan food writers, and food writers who keep kosher – we can seek those out if we’re looking for opinions that might be more similar to our own, but in general, we must keep in mind that what we’re reading are opinions only.

That said, a really good food writer might add the details the good doctor is looking for. Not only would it be nice to know a restaurant serves up a mean hunk of salmon, but their health score was incredibly high, they list veg options right there on the menu, and the gluten-free table next to him was happy as a bunch of clams lolling about in the sand.

bibi

May 16th, 2010
1:44 pm

I’m afraid too many commentators on this blog don’t want to see calorie counts on menus because ignorance is bliss-studies have shown that people routinely underestimate the amount of calories they think they are eating-I for one would love to be able to eat out and make informed decisions about my choices-if a reviewer could tell me that they knew for certain that at a specific restaurant the food was reasonable in calories, healthy and delicious, I’d be round there like a shot-but when will that ever happen?

Kenneth Braunstein

May 16th, 2010
2:55 pm

I am surprised that no one has seriously commented on whether or not a review should contain some sort of assessment of the restaurant’s knowledge of food allergies. In a 2007 CNN.com report they estimated that out of the 12 million Americans with food allergies,150 will die every year from them. This past week on May 14 the New York Times reported a study that showed that 8% of children and under 5% of adults have true food allergies.

In the CNN report, children and young adults were at greatest risk of dying from their food allergies. 58% of those who died where between 13 and 30 years of age. Out of the 31 deaths examined, 68% were from eating food somewhere outside of the victim’s home. The vast majority of the deaths were from nuts (80%), such as peanuts, almonds, cashews, or pecans.However, out of the 31 deaths, four were due to milk exposure and two were from shrimp exposure.

Within the past year or so, a Rap singer died at a local chain restaurant from anaphylaxis from a food allergy after warning the waitress that he was allergic to the particular food and requesting that it not be served to him per the AJC account of the incident.

Although food allergy is one area where everyone would agree individual responsibility is paramount, I am amazed that those who have them are not interested in knowing in advance whether the restaurant is up to date on them, has heard of them, or is clueless.

justin bieber

May 17th, 2010
12:28 am

i luv kate and chloe

Louis Prima

May 17th, 2010
9:20 am

The only deadly fava beans I’m aware of were served with liver by Anthony Hopkins.

1164mgc

May 17th, 2010
10:36 am

As a vegetarian, I feel it is MY responsibility to find out if meat is served in a dish. I would hate to listen to a long list of “possible offenders” every time I go out – I’d hate to read it on a menu either. That being said, I DO appreciate when a salad or similar is listed on the menu as containing meat. And I am surprised at how many servers don’t know what is included in the soups they serve. One went back to the kitchen and came back to me to say “Well it LOOKS like it doesn’t have meat, but I’m not sure…” A well-informed staff is all anybody needs (in these instances) when eating out.

Kenneth Braunstein

May 17th, 2010
11:12 am

Enter your comments hereTo 1164mgc: Would you object to restaurants just simply stating and certifying on the menu that a dish is vegetarian: i.e., vegetarian chili or vegetarian Caesar salad. I would think that if they were interested in cultivating a vegetarian following they would do that. If they indeed go to that extra effort, shouldn’t a reviewer note it in the review? For kosher foods there is a code on the labels: D for dairy and P for parve (neutral: no meat and no dairy). At a minimum chefs could certify on the menu: V for vegetarian, D for contains dairy products, S for seafood, N for nuts, etc. It isn’t that hard to do. An explanation of the code could be added on the bottom of each page of the menu. It would make your doing your part easier without listening to or reading a long list of offenders and having to dely ordering by having to check with the chef to be sure that the server is correct. All you would have to do is request from the server that the kitchen honors the designation on the menu.

Cekker

May 17th, 2010
12:41 pm

Braunstein you lose. Nobody agrees with you, didn’t you notice?