Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Guest Post: Public Health RD Questions Ontario's Calorie Labelling Rollout

Last week an RD who'd prefer to remain anonymous asked me if they could share their thoughts on Ontario's new calorie labelling initiative with my readers. I readily agreed, and I agree with much of this post. I'm strongly supportive of calorie labelling, but the rollout certainly could have been more thoughtful. And while I agree with all of this RD's closing points, I don't see calorie labelling vs. other changes as being either or - I'd like to see them all.
On January 1st of this year it became mandatory for restaurants with at least 20 locations in Ontario to post the calories on their menus. Many dietitians and other healthcare professionals rejoiced as this information would help people to make better, or at least more informed choices when eating out. Personally, I was a little more skeptical. From what I had seen from other places implementing similar legislation resulted in little if any change in eating habits. We are always talking about evidence-informed decision making in healthcare, yet this legislation from the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care seemed to be based more on appearances than on evidence.

There were problems from the start. Training for public health inspectors (who are responsible for enforcing the legislation) didn’t take place until just over a month before the legislation took effect. It was made very clear to the PHIs that they were to only ensure that eating establishments adhere to the legislation; i.e. that calories were posted in the appropriate places in large enough font and that the contextual statement was posted. They were not to question the calorie counts posted. Some of you might remember the time everyone got upset about Chipotles posting the calories for just the chorizo in a wrap, rather than for the entire wrap. Well, if something like this were to happen in Ontario, unless a complaint came from the public, the PHIs have no recourse. They might see calories posted that seem blatantly incorrect but they have been instructed not to question them. Restaurant owners and operators need only use means that they “reasonably believe” to determine the calorie counts. That means that calorie counts could be determined by a bomb calorimeter (accurate) or by myfitnesspal (questionable) as long as the owner believes it to be accurate. The Ministry declined to provide PHIs with any guidance as to what methods and tools would be appropriate so they are left to take restaurant owners at their word.

Framing this as an initiative to decrease childhood obesity was a huge mistake in my mind. Teaching children to calorie count is not healthy or helpful. Nor is simply providing calorie amounts to parents when caloric needs vary so much among children. Sometimes providing just a little information can be dangerous. I’m sure that the government meant well and they thought this would be a great visible way to show that they’re tackling childhood obesity while downloading the cost onto restaurant owners, win-win. However, this legislation should have been targeted toward adults only. Children should never be counting calories.

The point of this legislation is ostensibly to help the public make informed choices. To that end, you would think that there would have been a public education campaign launched well in advance of the implementation of the legislation. You would be wrong. Despite numerous requests from public health dietitians, and assurances that public education was coming, it wasn’t until over a month after the legislation came into effect that any “education” was undertaken. As a dietitian, I was expecting information on how to use the newly available calorie postings to make better choices. Boy was I wrong. Instead, the Ministry released a series of ads that read more like fast food advertisements and essentially just say “calories are now on menus”.

Let’s fill our kids with ideas about eating right.

A post shared by Ontario Government (@ongov) on

I see these and I think, “wow! Poutine and hash browns are so low in calories. They’re not as bad a choice as I thought.” Not at all the message that I think should be coming through this campaign. It’s embarrassing that the government used our tax dollars to pay people to come up with these terrible ads. Apparently they focus group tested them and the teens thought they were hilarious. Perhaps they can’t tell the difference between laughing with you and laughing at you? Regardless, there should have been someone working on this campaign who saw that it wasn’t sending the intended message (check out the comments). They should also realize that simply telling people that calories are posted on menus isn’t sufficient to aid them in appropriately using this information. As it stands, it only serves to help those who are already health conscious and who know roughly how many calories per day they should be consuming. They should have been giving people the information and tools to better understand and use the calorie counts.

Does putting calories on menus even work? There was a recent webinar by Health Evidence on this and they said that on average, it led to reductions of about 70 calories per day. Which sounds great except that the average caloric intake of people in the studies was about 3000 calories a day, about 1000 calories more than the recommended daily calories for an average adult. So, yes, putting calories on menus may lead some people to choose items with fewer calories but if they’re still consuming about 900 more calories than they need I’m not sure that’s anything to write home about.

Calories are only one piece of information and I worry about putting too much emphasis on it. Restaurant meals tend to be obscenely high in sodium but the calories won’t tell us anything about this. Calories also don’t tell us if a menu item is nutrient dense or nutrient void. It can make it appear that deep-fried foods are equal to salads.

Something else to consider, beyond the concerns I mentioned above about the accuracy of the methods used to determine the calorie counts, is the human factor. Even if the calories are accurately measured, that’s based on the sample as provided by the restaurant which you can bet is going to put that food in the best light possible. Do you really think that line cooks in a restaurant, or teenagers at Five Guys are concerned about portioning things so that meals contain the same number of calories as is posted on the menus? I doubt it. they’re probably using more oil on that stir-fry or scooping extra fries onto that plate. It’s pretty safe to assume that the actual number of calories in any given menu item is going to be higher than the number posted on the menu so take the number on the menu with a grain of salt.

I’m sure that there are people reading this thinking “but at least they’re doing something. What would you do?” I would bring back mandatory home ec in schools. I would help to ensure better access to and affordability of nutritious foods across the province. I would provide more support and funding for healthy eating and food literacy initiatives for all ages. Instead of accepting that people are going to eat out regularly, and assuming that providing calories on menus is going to make people healthier, we should be encouraging people to get in the kitchen.

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