America has come a long way from the days when nutritional awareness was limited to school posters about the five basic food groups. Tremendous advances have been made in health education and recognizing the impacts of nutritious, and non-nutritious, foods on chronic illness, productivity, and obesity. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are updated every five years, recommend portions based on continually updated science and medicine. Nutritional labels on packaged foods, and now the enhanced detail to those labels, have helped shoppers become conscious of calories, carbohydrates, sodium, types of fats, calories from fat, and numerous other criteria, according to individual dietary needs. When shopping for groceries, those who choose to pay attention to nutritional content are armed with a powerful tool for better health.
However, increasingly in American society, many families rely very heavily on meals bought at restaurants and other venues, such as schools, malls, sporting events, and fairs. For both economic reasons and convenience, fast-food restaurants have been among the greatest beneficiaries of the shift in our national eating habits. For many families, the fast-food chains have become daily sources of calorie intake. For many of these families, fast-food chain restaurants are the only ones that they can afford to visit regularly. Thus, this is also an issue that disproportionately affects lower-income families.
In the eyes of many health professionals, fast-food restaurants have also become the bane of society. Many contend that reliance on these outlets, often with menus of dubious nutritional value, is a major cause of the well-documented national epidemic of obesity and under-performance, especially among our youth. An imbalance of high calorie, high cholesterol, high carbohydrate, high fat, high sugar, high sodium foods leave students less able to concentrate, less able to learn, more prone to lethargy, and more prone to health vulnerabilities.
As the reliance on grab-and-go restaurants increases, so too does the need to know what is in the food that we order at these venues. The impact of nutritional labels on packaged foods at stores is mitigated as millions of people are consuming just as much from their local red-and-yellow motiffed drive-through windows as they are from labeled store-bought foods. Yet, these fast-food restaurants create images of health and nutrition without substantiating those impressions. Some selectively identify nutritional information, rather than provide the full detail of nutritional content that is required of packaged foods, as would be helpful for the more nutrition-oriented consumers.
Ideas / Solutions
Federal government action is needed, just as it was needed for packaged foods in the past. The need for full disclosure of nutritional content of all menu offerings at all fast-food restaurants and other venues cannot be overstated. The place to start is in school cafeterias, partly because its captive clientele of children regularly eat there, and partly because it provides a natural opportunity to teach children about nutrition in a setting that is at least as instructive as the classroom.
Next, while this initiative might be onerous for a mom-and-pop restaurant with just a location or two, the large chains with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of locations cannot make the same claim. Since their menus are standardized, their corporate headquarters can conduct content analyses. Each location should be required to post the results, conforming to the nutritional label of packaged foods, in full view of the consumers (i.e., not just for viewing upon request), both inside their outlets and alongside their drive-through window menus, if not on the packaging or wrappers themselves. They should also be asked to identify (with a symbol or a logo) their healthy menu offerings that conform to healthy meal guidelines that would be developed jointly by the USDA and the US Department of Health and Human Services.
The cost of doing so would be incidental in comparison with the volume that they sell, and the societal value of doing so would far outweigh the inconvenience of testing and publicizing the results. It would also incentivize fast-food restaurants to offer healthier menu items, and ultimately increase their revenues, as new customers would be attracted to the healthy menu items. This benefit has already been substantiated by a few locally-based small restaurant chains which have already voluntarily initiated this practice, marketing its menus as a healthier alternative to the large chains. Although McDonalds laudably announced in 2005 its intention to begin providing nutritional data, all should be required to do so. One bill has been introduced in Congress requiring such disclosure at all fast food restaurants, but still, no action has been taken on it.
The refusal to fully disclose the nutritional contents should trigger a Surgeon General's Warning, cautioning the public that eating at that venue is potentially hazardous to one's health. Conversely, as long as a restaurant conforms to their disclosure obligations, they should not be restricted from offering less healthy menu options, even including batter-dipped, deep-fried, chocolate-covered, sugar coated Twinkies, in case some customer wants to exercise their right to commit a slow suicide.
Since fast-food restaurants have become intertwined with American family life, they need to act like part of the family. Many of them market their products to children, which further heightens their responsibility. Informed decisions are the key to smart decisions, and nutritional information is the key to both. Failure to do so will exacerbate protracted problems -- both personal and societal -- that are easily kept in check, and will take an ever-increasing toll on lives and our national health care expenses, which is not a reasonable cost of doing business.