Editorial: Full food disclosure needed

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

It’s no secret that many restaurants don’t want their customers to know just how unhealthy their food is. Few eateries advertise how fattening their offerings are or how often they use ingredients that harm consumers. They fear sales will dip or public outrage will force them to stop skimping on the good stuff in favor of cheaper fillers.

Massachusetts public health officials took a stand Wednesday against such deceptive practices. Unfortunately, it was too weak a stand that doesn’t go nearly far enough to ensure eateries inform consumers of food’s nutritional value — or lack thereof.

The state approved a regulation requiring some restaurant chains to prominently advertise calorie counts of their menu items, letting customers know which foods are sure to go straight to their thighs. However, the regulation delays enforcement until November 2010 and strangely applies only to chains with 20 or more locations in the state, primarily targeting fast-food restaurants. It exempts smaller chains and single-site restaurants, much to the delight the plentiful weiner and chourico joints that are sure to contribute just as much to the obesity epidemic as any McDonald’s or Burger King.

If the goal is to improve public health through greater access to nutritional information, no eatery should be exempt, and none should be allowed to continue serving food with unnecessarily high calorie counts without informing consumers for the next 18 months.

Furthermore, the disclosure regulation neglects an ingredient that can be equally as harmful as high calories and fat, especially to those susceptible to cardiovascular disease: salt.

A recent study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest revealed that many restaurant chains are overloading their food with salt, increasing customers’ risk of heart attacks, high blood pressure and strokes. Nearly 85 percent of single meals served at some of the most popular restaurant chains have more than the recommended limit for total sodium intake per day, the study found. Worse, nearly half of the meals at those restaurants contain more than two days worth of salt.

U.S. health recommendations urge healthy adults to consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day — about one teaspoon. Those with conditions like high blood pressure should have no more than 1,500 milligrams a day.

The saltiest meal in the study — Red Lobster’s “Admiral’s Feast” — contains 7,106 milligrams of sodium, more than three days worth. Chili’s buffalo chicken fajitas were next at 6,916 milligrams, followed by its honey chipotle ribs at 6,440 milligrams. The Olive Garden’s lasagna was close behind with 6,176 milligrams, the study found. Kids meals from those restaurants, as well as Jack in the Box and KFC, far exceeded the recommended 1,200-milligram daily limit for children.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulate the amount of sodium allowed in the nation’s food supply. At the very least, consumers should know what they’re eating. While much of the information can be found on the Internet, studies show few research restaurants before going out.

While Massachusetts’ efforts to force some restaurants to identify calorie counts is a positive first step, the state should go farther to require all restaurants to disclose the harmful ingredients in their food. If they don’t want to do so, they are more than welcome to do what they should have all along: serve healthier food.

The Herald News