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.