Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Pop go the obesity theories--and the corks

I wish I had the Champagne concession for Rick Berman’s office, at least for these 24 hours.

In case you missed the news, the folks who believe restaurant chains can fix America’s weight problem were made to look like conspiracy nuts by two research studies released today.

One refuted the rationale behind menu labeling, noting that consumers in New York City tended to order more-fattening meals and snacks after the city mandated calorie disclosures by chains last year. Almost every respondent said they noticed the calorie counts posted on menus and menu boards, and a large percentage reported that the information influenced their decisions. But when researchers examined the participants' receipts to see what had actually been purchased, they discovered that customers had said one thing but done another. Knowing how many calories were in a product didn’t stop the typical low-income minority New Yorker from eating it.

The other study flatly refuted the contention of the lawmakers who ram-rodded through a measure last year to suspend development of fast-food places in economically distressed South Los Angeles. The restrictions “are unlikely to improve the diet of residents or reduce obesity,” Rand Corp. noted in announcing its findings.

Berman, a restaurant-chain lobbyist who once said he comes at adversaries with a knife clenched between his teeth, couldn’t have hoped for better data if he’d cooked the numbers. But before Berman comes at me with a bite-marked Bowie, let me underscore the researchers’ own assurances to the contrary. Rand noted that its projected was funded by the National Institute of Health, not restaurant chains. The New York study was based on surveys by NYU and Yale University professors of more than 1,156 Big Apple residents. This wasn’t Mickey Mouse stuff.

Rick’s industry-affiliated advocacy groups have yipped for years about do-gooders misdirecting their obesity fixes at restaurants. It was hardly a surprise, then, that his Center for Consumer Freedom was quick to trumpet the studies. Its daily e-letter hailed the findings as “myth-shattering,” with a headline reading, “Obesity Science Catches Up With the Sound Bite.” The coverage was delivered in a section bannered, “Big Fat Lies.” Clearly the CCF was claiming vindication for its argument that foodservice wouldn’t work as a goad for healthier living.

“Yes, indeed, victory is sweet,” noted the e-letter. “The two studies go a long way toward bursting the activist fantasy that getting between Americans and the foods they enjoy is the road to better health.”

But, as it acknowledged without expressly saying so, the victory is qualified.

In an ironic twist, Rand concluded from its data that a nutrition-disclosure mandate might do more than a fast-food ban to change unhealthy eating habits.

California has already passed a law that requires menu labeling by chain restaurants, though the requirement does not go into full effect until 2011. But a number of states, counties and municipalities elsewhere are still considering such measures.

Similarly, an author of the New York study told The New York Times that perhaps a calorie-disclosure requirement isn’t a strong enough measure to change consumer behavior. NYU’s Brian Elbel didn’t elaborate on what type of further action he envisioned, or whether he was thinking of additional obligations for restaurants.

Casual restaurant chains may also be a bit disturbed by one of the asides from the Rand study. The report noted the public tends to view sit-down restaurants as offering healthier fare than fast-food joints, a definite “misconception.”

“When we looked at some common offerings, an average lunch sandwich in a sit-down restaurant had more than the combined calories of three Big Mac hamburgers; many dinner choices have over 2,000 calories and cover the energy needs for a full day,” Rand observed. “And that does not even include possible appetizers or desserts."

One of the few perceived advantages that casual places currently enjoy over quick-serve restaurants was squarely refuted.

Then again, a lot of perceptions were apparently skewered today. Along with a few adversaries.

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