January 19, 2007

STOP and read your (restaurant) labels

We are not the only country that too big for our britches.

In the British Isles, obesity is on the rise. But the British government wants to do something about it. The Food Standards Agency has developed a simply, but effective (maybe too effective, some say), system for figuring out what are the healthy foods you should buy.

You’re standing in a supermarket aisle looking at two similar products, trying to decide which to choose. You want to make the healthier choice but, as usual, you’re in a hurry. Well, help is on the way. Products on sale have traffic light colours on the label to help you make your choice. With traffic light colours, you can see at a glance if the food you’re looking at has high, medium or low amounts of each of these nutrients in 100g of the food.

Red = High
Amber = Medium
Green = Low

You will also see the number of grams of fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar in what the manufacturer or retailer suggests as a ‘serving’ of the food.

So, if you see a red light on the front of the pack, you know the food is high in something we should be trying to cut down on. It’s fine to have the food occasionally, or as a treat, but try to keep an eye on how often you choose these foods, or try eating them in smaller amounts.

Makes sense for the government to standardize the labeling, and provide some direction for its citizens, especially its children.

In America we have food labeling -- although not as simple as the British system. But it only covers a little more than half the calories you eat. The other 40-50 percent is eaten outside of the home (and your foods properly labelled). Try to get nutritional information -- or just the calories -- on those meals is like eating one french fry. No one knows because it hasn't been done yet.

Some restaurants provide some information on its food. But not one restaurant in America gives you complete nutritional information on a meal you eat there. Don't you think it would be important -- given the fact that so many people are obese -- to know how many calories you are eating when you sit down to a nice Italian meal at your favorite ristorante?

It's important to me as I try to shed 53 years and 100 pounds of incomplete information and too-big-of portions.

But, as most of you know, it's near impossible to calculate the calories or fat in just one dish at a fast food place, let an entire meal. Is that olive oil or trans-fat that the calamari was fried in? Is that lean or prime beef the meatballs are made of? Is that fresh broccoli rabe sautéed in butter, oil, lard or pasta water?

And that's just the tip of iceberg.

So don't the restaurants, cafeterias, fast-food places, convenience stores, and every other place that sells food have a responsibility to provide just a little information so we can have options.

Imagine looking at a menu below. Which would you pick? Who knows. But at least your decision would be based on both food choice, nutrition and what's good for you.

And let's face it. You wouldn't pick the last item, and plow through four red lights.

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