Informed Dining – Could Answer the Question “What’s Worst?”

This weekend our family visited a big park in the city – I won’t name names but it had everything two little rambunctious boys could want in a day trip: an outdoor swimming pool, a train ride, a beach, several playgrounds including one with an old fire truck.  It was so fun, we spent much more time there than we’d planned and certainly more than our hastily packed bag of fruit could sustain us for. And when the bag was empty and we needed more sustenance but did not want to leave the fun zone – we sidled up to the concession counter.

Not expecting a gastronomic experience, I still wanted some options that would contribute to our family’s nutrition but aside from milk and juice, that wasn’t on the menu.  At this point I thought it would be useful to have some labeling so at least I could decide on the “least-worst choice”.  And that may be a new item appearing on menus soon.

Yesterday, the government announced the introduction of BC’s Informed Dining program. This voluntary program will give customers the chance to look over the nutritional information on standard menu items on request.  And today a synthesis of the evidence on nutritional labeling from the National Collaborating Centre for Healthy Public Policy arrived in my in-box. I thought it would be interesting to see how some of the elements of the Informed Dining program relate to the evidence.

The evidence says that “the context in which a public policy is implemented influences the effects it produces”.  And since “restaurants are a much-frequented eating environment in North America; thus, implementing nutrition labeling there would potentially reach a large portion of the population.”  Good.

Of course, it has to not only be there but should also be read. According to the evidence “between 50 and 60% of consumers claim to do so (more, in some studies), but observation-based studies record lower percentages.”  Hmmmm…well, 60% isn’t that bad given that some people have already made up their mind for other reasons.

BC’s Informed Dining program will be voluntary and that is not surprising given that according to participant interviews, there is the ‘perception’ that the public favours voluntary measures.  But in fact, “several studies seem to indicate that coercively regulating industry (mandatory labeling is acceptable to most consumers… [who] judge nutrition labeling to be credible if it is supervised by non-industry actors (public agencies, consumer or nutritionists’ associations, etc.)”.

This new program may also help to clear up some confusion for us eaters.  The evidence says that “the lack of standardization (a proliferation of industry-created logos based on different nutritional criteria that are sometimes not very transparent, nutrition information presented for portion sizes that vary from one food to another) confuses consumers.”  It’s likely confusion will continue but some attempt at a simplified standard way to present nutritional can only help.

And it looks better for those of us who eat out from time to time. ”For restaurants also, most studies indicate a positive effect, but the percentage of respondents who say they are influenced by nutrition labeling varies greatly from one study to another (from 23% to 73%, including an intermediate range of 30-40%)”. But then on the other hand, “other studies report no effect.”  Still, if 30-40% of restaurant orders shift to something healthier I’d say that is remarkably positive.

The report concludes that labeling is “partially effective at acting on diet to prevent obesity”. To put it in non-scientific terminology: it works for some of the people, some of the time, even if that means answering the question “what’s worst?!”

Rita Koutsodimos
Manager, Advocacy and Communications
August 2011


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