Don't fine food

October 29, 2003

SAY YOU'RE sitting down at a trattoria somewhere along High Street. Ready to relax, you open up the menu, and along with a fancy description of each edible delight is a chart showing its calorie count and nutritional breakdown. Who ordered the math puzzle?

As part of its battle plan to stem the increasing American bulge, the Food and Drug Administration is considering suggesting or requiring that restaurants include on their menus nutrition information for each dish. While that sort of thing can work for packaged food - and packaged fast food - it's much harder for those eateries with changing menus and prepared-to-order dishes. And it is unclear whether most diners want or need such data.

Obesity is a serious issue, and the everyday environment - less exercise, much more temptation - contributes to the problem. But do health officials really think people don't know a butter-based sauce is fatty? Or that super-sizing those fries means they will be eating more calories?

Not to mention the enforcement question. Will the FDA be sending hordes of calorie-checkers nationwide? Will chefs face fines for mismeasuring a dollop of sour cream?

Many people in the United States are growing in girth, but many are not - and all are responsible for their own intake.

In most restaurants, menu descriptions already list ingredients, which is usually enough to suggest a calorie, fat and pleasure count. Some fast-food places, including Subway and McDonald's, give out nutritional breakdowns, and many others label some meals "heart-happy" or "light."

Such labels can help people make smart choices about what they eat. But a healthy diet is more than calories and food composition. It also includes balance (the range of food during a day) and proportion (how much). And maintaining a healthy body involves exercise and lifestyle, and learning the value of moderation.

Going to a fancy restaurant is a lifestyle indulgence, in dollars and often in food content, and should be savored, not dissected.

The food agency aims to release its plan to fight obesity in February. Instead, it should stick to education and exhortation, and leave the table menu to the maitre d's.

Or if the FDA decides everyone really does need to be told the chemical composition of the food, perhaps it can limit it to labeling the menu in the outside window. Worry about your health levels as you enter the door; once you're inside, just enjoy the meal.

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