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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?

Kenneth Braunstein

May 17th, 2010
1:09 pm

To Cekker: I wouldn’t say nobody. Bibi does. I don’t think she is a relative, either. It is clear that JK’s bloggers expect less from a food review than they do from a Consumer Reports review. You would expect their experts to comment on the safety of cars, tires, cosmetics, home tools, baby cribs, baby food, etc.

1164mgc

May 17th, 2010
2:06 pm

To Kenneth Braunstein: I would welcome any designation on the menu that says a dish is CERTIFIED vegetarian. Some actually do that, and I appreciate it. But by reading some of the comments here, I realize that if I were to happen to eat a piece of bacon or a little bit of anchovy paste in a dish, while I’d suffer for it, it is not going to kill me – however, if I were allergic to something (like peanuts) I’d have to go that extra mile and question anything that sounds suspicious. In those cases where they may certify that something is peanut-free (for example), you might get into the danger of having the restaurant/chef legally responsible if a stray ingredient got in there. I would think most, if not all, people with such allergies carry epi-pens, yet it is as they say – an ounce of prevention is worth a pund of cure.

Getting back to the original question, though – whether or not a food writer should alert the public to food risks – I think it’s nice if they do mention that there are a lot of vegetarian options available, whether or not peanuts are served at the table, etc. but I don’t think they should be required to do so. I do think that the codes you mention for menus would help in the food writers’ columns as well, yet if I were truly an issue of life and death I think people would ask at the restaurant even if they were given any kind of guidelines on the menu or reviews, etc.

Kenneth Braunstein

May 17th, 2010
3:38 pm

To 1164: The wife of a doctor acquaintance of mine was told by a chef the day before going to the restaurant that an item was made nut free. On the day she got there, he had decided to make it with nuts. She had to use her EpiPen that day. She does not go out to eat in restaurants anymore due to her severe nut allergy. Your point about being vigilant is well taken. I just think that it would simplify dining out to have some formal means of letting people in advance know whether a particular restaurant is appropriate for them. Take for instance the great ethnic restaurants along Buford Highway. Many of the employees and the chefs there don’t speak conversational English very well. There must be a way for people with dietary restrictions to be able to eat safely at those restaurants. The convention business is vital to the economic health of our metropolitan area. To maintain our competitive edge, the restaurants must be user friendly to our guests with food allergies and dietary restrictions. Clearly, for them restaurant guides are an important source of information about where they will dine. Knowing that an item’s recipe does not include a forbidden ingredient will make dining out a lot more convenient. It takes the guess work out of ordering. One would always remind the server that the menu claims it is free of the forbidden ingredient and ask him/her to remind the kitchen of that fact. That is much more convenient than having to drag the chef out of a busy kitchen to be sure you and the kitchen staff are in sync, which unfortunately you may still have to do in establishments with amateur wait staffs (kids making extra money for college, etc.) and not true professionals.

As for liability, they are already liable if a customer drops dead from a food allergy. It becomes an impossible thing to defend. You have to prove that the now dead customer failed to warn you about their allergy. In the example I gave earlier, the restaurant lost $750,000.

The Nerve

May 17th, 2010
4:30 pm

I’m still amazed by the “death from Fava Beans” thing. And glad that I don’t have any food allergies. Whew.

Kenneth Braunstein

May 17th, 2010
5:03 pm

To The Nerve: I’m delighted that you now are beginning to appreciated the complexity of this issue. As more and more different cuisines with their own unique ingredients become available in the metro area, food allergies and dietary restrictions become an increasingly important issue. It ain’t fried chicken and bisquits anymore. It is my thought that food critics who are usually experts on food would expand their role and assist in guiding individuals who do care about their nutrition into good eating that is healthful. For those of you in the blogosphere who think I am nuts (and by your response that is the overwhelming majority of you), I suggest you take a look at the Culinary Institute of America’s Professional Chef’s® Techniques of Healthy Cooking or some of Alice Waters cookbooks. It is possible to have “good eats” and good nutrition. It is possible to go out to a restaurant and eat well and healthful. If Americans change their evil ways in their diets, hopefully we will be able to keep Big Brother out of our kitchens and restaurants.

Carrie Neal Walden

May 18th, 2010
11:00 am

Kenneth is an intelligent person, clearly. However, it seems he and I fundamentally disagree on where the *burden* of responsibility on this- or likely, any- issue is – and that, for me, is on the individual.

I am responsible for my own eating. McDonald’s doesn’t “make” me fat. If I choose to eat there, or eat there to excess and also choose other unhealthy lifestyle activities like no exercise, etc, then I will face the consequences. It is not McDonald’s responsibilty to “choose” my choices. Nor is it the job of a server to quiz me about my health – how annoying and actually rude would that seem?!- as I am perfectly capable and responsible of coming to any restaurant (nice, casual, fast-food or other) and asking discreetly the questions appropriate to discern dietary or health-related/nutrition-based info I need to order as I like. Or to order that ginormous cheeseburger and fries I really want.

Excellent response, JK. You do your job well, written enjoyably and with skill, and I believe- with a level of attention to nutrition and food “issues” of different sorts that are noteworthy. So, if this were a high school debate and I a judge, you win!

Carrie Neal Walden

May 18th, 2010
11:00 am

PS – I was using McDonald’s as a general example, just for the “record”!

Kenneth Braunstein

May 18th, 2010
12:35 pm

Personal responsibility has become a very complex topic since the new health care reform bill was signed. Within that bill are provisions for the Federal Government to expand its oversight of the American diet. Some of what JK Blogers are objecting to is not an abstract concept but Federal law now. The FDA sees a mandate from that law to lower sodium, fat, carbohydrates, and calories within the American food supply and, hence, diet. My issue is not whether you go to a particular restaurant. My issue is that you should have the data base to decide if that restaurant is appropriate for you. If you have heart failure, you have no business going to a Mexican restaurant that has 2 days worth of sodium in each dish. You need to know that if you have salt restrictions. If the chef at that same Mexican restaurant can do a no salt or low salt version of his menu, you also need to know that in your decision making process. The government now has rules in place that McDonalds and other chains will have to prominently display the nutritional content of each of the items you order. You won’t be given the option to discreetly ask for that. With regards to food allergies, it will not take most restaurants liabiity insurance companies very long to require that the servers document that they asked about food allergies. Look up the case from July 2008 where the basic argument was what the server knew. In medicine we are already required to ask for drug allergies when we prescribe medication. Look up my earlier comment on food allergies to see the number of deaths each year in people with food allegies who eat outside of their homes. I assure you, any restaurant that has someone drop dead in their dining room will be asking you if you have any food allergies. The reason for making this an issue is to be sure that the 8% of children and somewhat less than 5% of adults with true food allergies are able to communicate with servers and chefs who know what they are talking about. Peanuts are technically not nuts since they are not from trees. A chef who adds peanuts or peanut oil to a dish is technically correct if he states there are no nuts in it. The diner is dead because of a miscommunication.

Cekker

May 18th, 2010
3:22 pm

To sum the debate:

Braunstein thinks personal resposibility is complex. He thinks that it’s fine and dandy that the feds now want to control what we eat through Big Brother health care rules and that litigation is a perfectly reasonable route to take to ensure that the consumer’s choices are limited and we are protected from ourselves. He wants restaurants and critics and the public to submit to what the Feds (and presumably himself) deem sensible for us to eat. If you have heart trouble the government should dictate what you eat. Because, you know, personal responsibility is complex. And he has a lot of statistics and analogies to back up his view.

The rest of us, except for Bibi(maybe?), disagree.

Kenneth Braunstein

May 18th, 2010
5:25 pm

To Cekker: I never said what I agreed with in the personal responsibility debate that you ascribe to me. I have tried to be neutral on the politics that you seem to think I have advocated. What I state without judgement are the facts. The law has these regulations in it and liability in Georgia is back to the way it used to be due to the State Supreme Court overturning the tort reform of the past few years. If you don’t like the Feds interfering with your diet, you’re too late unless you can figure out a way to overturn the law as our Governor is trying to do. The editorial page of today’s AJC has a debate about this. Give him some suggestions. If you don’t like the fact that trial lawyers dictate how you live by filing lawsuits directly on individuals and their employers and indirectly on the corporations that insure them, then talk to your state representative and senator. No insurance company is going to pay for a negligence lawsuit without putting the screws on the insured after all is said and done. One of the unfortunate aspects of living in our country is having to pay for settlements and verdicts in liability lawsuits. Look at all of the legal papers you have to sign these days to cover liability for renting a car, sending your kid on a field trip for school, any after school sport activity, or having a minor procedure done to you at a hospital or outpatient facility. From how you worded your comment, it appears that you personally do not have to pay for liability insurance for your job. If you did, you know that what I have described that the hospitality industry is going to face in the future is going to happen. The Mom and Pop restaurant is being squeezed by the franchise, chain, or megagroup corporations. They will all have liability policies. Their underwriters will try to minimize the risk by requiring documentation of such things as denial or affirmation of food allergies. Google E. Coli induced hemolytic uremic syndrome or salmonella and see the lawsuits they create. Call or email any restaurant chain’s risk management department and see what their policies are. Go to Five Guys and see all the disclaimers about peanuts they have placed very prominently in their restaurants. Do you think their lawyer had some say in the wording and placement of those signs? They won’t even let you walk out of one of their sites with a single peanut they give out free. Talk to restaurant managers, like I have, and see how they are trying to cope with the issue. Finally, if you don’t think personal responsibility is complex, go to a law library and read up on informed consent. If you are harmed by a restaurant, how much is their responsibility and how much is yours? How much research do you have to do on your allergy before you can place blame on a restaurant; i.e., did you personally do due dilligence? Can a person with a known milk allergy sue an ice cream palor? (I know that sounds ridiculous, but remember the woman who successfully sued McDonalds for its hot coffee being too hot.) Do you wear a MediAlert of its equivalent on your person to warn others of your allergies? How clear do you have to be about your allergies with the restaurant’s staff? With whom are you ultimately responsible to discuss your allergies? Is a server adequate or does the manager or chef need to be told personally by you if you have a potentially lethal allergy? If you knowingly order and eat undercooked food that you assume is bacteria free but it isn’t, have you waved your rights because the restaurant had a sign somewhere in it or a statement on the menu stating that the government does not deem that to be a safe eating choice? Who do you sue if your wife or kid is killed by a drunk driver who got plastered at a bar or restaurant and was allowed to leave the establishment to drive home on his own? The law states that the bar or restaurant is liable for that individuals’ “personal responsibility” not to drive drunk. You may not be aware that if you serve alcohol at your house you can be liable for the actions of anyone who leaves it intoxicated. Finally, remember the rule of gold. He who has the gold rules. Under the new health care act, the government has the gold and it rules, whether you, John Kessler, or I like it or not.

Kenneth Braunstein

May 18th, 2010
6:21 pm

To Cekker: The topic of this blog is whether restaurant reviewers who, because of the new regulations in the health care bill, will have access to nutritional information not previously available to them should include that data in their reviews to allow individuals to exercise their personal responsibility in a more informed fashion than they do now. In addition, should those same reviewers note the ease of interface with the restaurant or the lack of it when such issues as food allergies or dietary restrictions are raised. I have purposely tried to avoid showing my approval or disapproval of the Big Brother aspects of the current law. As for litigation, I’m a doctor. It’s a fact of life. Also, 1164 mgc should count for at least a half of an approval.

Soufflé Chef

May 19th, 2010
5:35 pm

Dr. Braunstein, perhaps you can explain why, if the problem of obesity is so important to the Obamas, how, in good conscious, he appointed an obese Surgeon General? There exists a certain perverse irony.

Kenneth Braunstein

May 19th, 2010
6:11 pm

Jenny Craig was not available.

Red

May 25th, 2010
9:36 am

It is not the food critic’s responsibility to give nutritional or health advice. It is the food critic’s responsibility to give a review of the food, the service, the ambiance. Then, when I get there, it’s my own responsibility to decide which items to order and how much. If I have concerns because I don’t eat this, that or whatever, then it’s on me to ask the server about it.

Given the health crisis in the US, I understand Dr. Braunstein’s desire that you use your column to address health and nutritional issues. However, unless you are a doctor or nutritionist, I’m going to be very wary about any such advice you give. And unless the AJC is going to hire a nutritionist to go with you,, I think you’d be getting into murky waters by holding forth on areas outside your expertise.

Then wait for the day where someone reads your column, orders something you thought was healthy but not, gets some health issue, then sues you and or the AJC for giving bad advice.

Kenneth Braunstein

May 26th, 2010
9:47 am

To Red: The food critic is not giving out nutritional or health advice when he/she describes what is in the dishes, the calories, the sodium content, the fat content, or the carbohydrate content. Nor is notifying the public as to the restaurant’s knowledge of food allergies or ability to adjust its recipes for dietary restrictions. Rather, the food critic is giving you the consumer the data you need to carry out your responsibility to decide which items to order and how much just as he/she does when describing how good or bad a dish tastes. I doubt that you would order something that a food critic describes as just awful tasting. For those individuals with significant health issues knowing in advance whether to try out a particular restaurant is important. Unless restaurants elect to do it on their own and either advertise what they do or place it on their website, where would the customer go to find out what is the real story about a restaurant and is it appropriate for their health needs?

[...] should be responsible for: calories, fat content, allergens, etc., etc., ad nauseum. The article is here. Go read it, I’ll [...]

Monica Ricci

July 17th, 2010
3:53 pm

FOOD ALLERGIES ASIDE…(that’s something I firmly believe is up to the individual to suss out, and the restaurant should have specific ingredient lists AVAILABLE in the back, for those with DEADLY allergies who want to put their minds at ease before dining. AND if you have a food allergy and you don’t carry an Epi-pen that’s just asking for trouble, because mistakes happen.)

Anyway… It’s not a food critic’s job to inform me of the “health rating” of the food they’re reviewing! Tell me if it was amazingly delicious or if it sucked. Give me the texture, the color, the flavors… tell me if you’d order it again. That’s all I want to know!

Listen people, it’s the year 2010… if you don’t know by now the difference between “healthy” food and unhealthy food, you’re an idiot. Here’s a hint: If you’re at a restaurant, there’s a good chance you’re getting more calories, fat, sugar, and salt than you really need. If I’m a restaurant critic, there’s your freakin’ disclaimer.

If you want to eat exactly 350 calories per meal and you’re on a sodium restricted diet you might have to come to terms with the fact that dining out might be a challenge.

Oh and by the way, some more food for thought… The government, through this b.s. stimulus bill and healthcare legislation is going to take so much more control of our bodies and small business that it will make your head spin.

I just heard today that as part of the “stimulus bill”, healthcare providers will be REQUIRED to include your BMI (body mass index) in your electronic medical records, or they will NOT get federal funding.

Hey Nutbar Congress and Clueless Pretend President! If I want to live on deep fried bacon and cheddar sandwiches, that’s MY business not yours. Grrrrrr… do NOT get me started.