Proponents of healthy eating scored two small wins this week when the City of New York upheld its ban on large sugary drinks and the world's biggest restaurant chain said it would start posting calorie counts on its menus.
Health experts have targeted soda and other artificially sweetened beverages as two of the leading causes of obesity. The New York City Board of Health's decision on Thursday to restrict the sale of these drinks at restaurants, street carts and movie theaters has been met with exaltation and defiance.
"NYC's new sugary drink policy is the single biggest step any gov't has taken to curb obesity. It will help save lives" tweeted New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg after the court's announcement.
But opponents of the ban, such as New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, are expected to challenge the ruling in court.
"This is not the end," said Eliot Hoff, a spokesperson for New Yorkers for Beverage Choices. "We are exploring legal options and all other avenues available to us."
Mark Bittman, a food columnist at The New York Times and a longtime advocate of healthy eating, supports NYC's sugary beverage proposal but says the best way to significantly reduce the nation's soda consumption would be a soda tax.
"When some city has the political will get a soda tax passed that will snowball," he says in an interview with The Daily Ticker. "I am quite convinced you will see public health benefits quickly."
Bittman acknowledges that Bloomberg's proposal was a "bold move" and "not an extremely popular one." The idea may be considered radical today but in "20 years we'll look back and wonder why it wasn't done sooner," he adds.
As for McDonald's (MCD) move to start publishing the calories of its food items, Bittman says it will make a difference to some consumers.
He estimates that only 10% to 15% of customers actually look at calorie postings. But those individuals tend to eat less compared to other diners, according to various research reports.
In one example, scientists at Stanford University studied the effect of Starbucks' (SBUX) decision to post the calorie contents of its beverage and food options in 2008. They determined that the number of calories per food purchase declined by 6 percent. But when the total calorie count was 250 or more per transaction, the reduction in calories dropped 26%.
McDonald's also announced it would start offering more health-conscious selections like an egg white McMuffin, grilled chicken in Happy Meals and seasonal fruits and vegetables like blueberries and cucumbers as side dishes.
"We want to voluntarily do this," said Jan Fields, president of McDonald's USA. "We believe it will help educate customers."
Bittman says the company, which operates 14,ooo locations in the U.S., could be doing more to promote healthy eating and smart food choices.
"If McDonald's wanted to make a dent in obesity, they could do something much better than posting calorie counts," he says. McDonald's could "encourage the consumption of smaller sodas rather than encouraging the consumption of bigger sodas. What I say to them is: how about falafel? How about hummus? How about more plant-based food that's becoming much more mainstream in the U.S.? People know what this stuff is."
Bittman says the company, best known for its Big Macs and dollar menu, has been making some progress in terms of healthy food and more humane farming practices.
The company will open its first vegetarian restaurant in India this year and has told its pork producers it would like to phase out the use of gestation crates for pigs.
McDonald's revolutionized the fast-food industry when it started serving burgers in 1955 and some experts say the rise in factory farming resulted from McDonald's push to make cheap food easily accessible to mass markets.
The more pressing concern with soda — and food in general — has become portion sizes Bittman says.
In his June 6 New York Times column, Bittman writes:
"The average potion sizes of our dietary staples have increased at an alarming rate since the 1950s. We've created a new normal in which eating the average amount of the average American foods all too often leads to the average case of obesity of Type 2 diabetes."
Bloomberg's push to ban sugary drinks may be regarded as "social engineering" or the beginning of a "nanny state" but Americans are already indirectly told what to eat by the government, Bittman argues:
"If we were truly free to make or own uncorrupted choices about what to eat and drinks, then corporations wouldn't be allowed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars marketing junk foods to kids and the federal government would subsidize fruits and vegetables at the same rate as the commodity crops are often used to produce junk. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we're already being told what to eat, and more often than not it's the wrong thing."
Obesity has quickly become one of the most urgent health crises in the U.S. The number of obese American has tripled in the last 50 years. Nearly 36 percent of U.S. adults are considered obese.
Overweight and obese Americans cost the federal government and U.S. companies billions of dollars every year in healthcare related expenses and lost productivity. Obesity has been linked to cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
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