Tuesday, June 9, 2009

State digests calorie bill: Chains would be required to publish diet numbers

The calorie debate may be over in the state House and Senate, but it's not over for diners, who are deciding whether they need to know — or even care to know — how many calories they're consuming in restaurants.
The state legislature has approved a bill requiring chains with at least 15 restaurants in the state to publish the number of calories of each food item on their menus and menu boards. The measure is on its way to Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who has not decided whether to sign it.
Supporters say the bill will give Connecticut consumers important information that could help stem what has been described as an epidemic of obesity. Opponents say it is a needless intrusion of government into private business affairs.
For consumers and restaurant operators, the issue is stirring a lively discussion.
"I think it's important for people to know what they're eating, especially at fast food chains," said Jason Schwarz, 34, of Waterbury, as he ate a chicken sandwich in the McDonald's on Union Street in Waterbury on Tuesday. "It takes the mystery out of it."
Sharon Zaldumbide, 19, of Beacon Falls and Katy Hyland, 19, of Prospect, while eating in this same McDonald's, decided that knowing how many calories they were consuming wouldn't change the way they order.
Zaldumbide said she thinks "people don't really care," while Hyland said she's "not really worried about it."
Carla Angevine, a registered dietitian at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington, said she believes the bill is only a "step in the right direction."
"I think many people don't know how many calories they need, so they need further education, along with what the restaurant chains will be giving them," Angevine said.
Angevine suggests that, to make healthier choices at restaurants, people should "watch portions, try to get things that come with sauces or dressings on the side, and always start a meal with a salad instead of the bread basket."
Restaurant chains in the state, including Chili's Grill & Bar, Ninety Nine and the Max Restaurant Group, as well as the Connecticut Restaurant Association, are publicly opposed, believing the state should wait for national legislation.
Shirley Taradash, owner of the McDonald's restaurant on Chase Avenue in Waterbury, said the bill is "absolutely not" necessary. She said customers will continue to eat what they want, regardless of this new caloric knowledge.
Taradash recalled the "McLean burger" that McDonald's marketed for a short time beginning in 1991. She said this product contained only 1 percent fat and that "we advertised a whole lot that this was healthy and wonderful."
"The majority of people who came in would order it with large fries, a shake, and put extra mayonnaise on it. The customer wasn't interested that it was low-calorie and low-fat," Taradash said.
Numerous organizations focused on health issues, including Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and the Connecticut Cancer Partnership, believe the bill will help reverse the growing rate of obesity in the state.
They cite a 2007 Behavioral Risk Factor Survey that determined 70 percent of Connecticut adults are overweight, with 24 percent of adults and 12 percent of high school students classified as obese.
Dr. Pat Checko, prevention committee co-chairwoman for the Connecticut Cancer Partnership, called obesity an "epidemic throughout the United States."
"It's not just a personal individual behavior and choice thing," Checko said. "You've got to change both policy and the environment to have a comprehensive approach to how we actually help people."
Roberta Friedman, director of public policy for the Rudd Center, said her organization's goal is to educate policy-makers and the public.
"A lot of the available scientific evidence supports the practice of menu labeling," Friedman said. "The point of it is to have people start to make more informed decisions about what they're buying."
Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Cheshire, a member of the legislature's Public Health Committee and a co-sponsor of the bill, said placing calorie counts on menus is important not only for general public health, but to help control the cost of health care.
"I think there's so much concern about obesity, and that's such a huge expense for us as part of our health care system," Esty said. "Fifty percent of all health care is based on actual behavioral decisions people make. A huge part of that is what we eat and how much we eat."
Esty said the cost to the chains to implement this would be minimal since the only thing the restaurants would have to do is "put a couple more numbers on your menu board."
"I think it will help people to think about how they want to spend their calories," Esty said.

Originally published Tuesday, June 9, 2009 in the Republican-American. ©

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