Last week, McDonald’s became the first major fast-food chain to post calorie contents on all drive-thru and in-store menus.
The change is a result of growing waistlines and, consequently, public officials’ and media outlets’ condemnation one of the world’s largest and most popular calorie producers. It’s happening everywhere: In the past year, New York City pushed legislation through that imposes limits on soda cup volumes, Los Angeles proposed a similar ban to make city parks and libraries soda-free and Olympic officials were pressured to ban Coca-Cola and McDonald’s from sponsoring the 2012 London Olympics.
But fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s are used as scapegoats for America’s obesity epidemic and addiction to fast food and thus, are subject to unfair legislation. A federal calorie-posting mandate issued as part of Obama’s new health care law, which only applies to fast food chains with more than 20 locations and no other restaurants, is an example of that. But this action is misguided and dangerous, as it misleads consumers to believe they are making healthier choices while encouraging misconceptions and greater inaction from the public and fast-food restaurants alike.
Though the new trend of posting calorie counts seems like a step in the right direction, consumers that face new calorie information and healthier options might be deluded into thinking that the decisions they make are sound nutritional ones. Having to face just how many calories are in that Big Mac will surely dissuade some customers from ordering calorie-laden goods, but it creates a red herring in the discourse surrounding better eating habits, which involve more than just calories. McDonald’s new menu boards give the illusion that by choosing lower calorie options, consumers are being more health-conscious, even in spite of the fact that calorie counts lend almost no help to understanding the nutritional value of a food item. Thus, these new menu boards simply distract consumers from more important health concerns while convincing them that they are taking control of their diets.
Not to mention, only forcing fast-food chains to post calorie counts fosters the misconception that fast food from a major chain is somehow inherently worse than food ordered anywhere else. Americans can order 1,000-calorie cheeseburger meals with fries at tens of thousands of sit-down restaurants, many of which would not need to post calorie information on their menus. Such selective legislation plays off the accessibility and ubiquity of fast-food restaurants that makes these companies seem so threatening to impulsive and irresponsible consumers. In reality, however, it only singles out one player in the problem of unhealthy foods while ignoring the overall issue.
In response to such criticism, fast- food establishments across the country are making efforts to offer broader and healthier options in every menu category. For example, apple slices have replaced or complemented French fries in many McDonald’s meals: The fast-food giant is now the largest buyer of apples in the United States.
But though McDonald’s response to public outcry might result in some good short-term benefits — adding a serving of fruit to each Happy Meal is certainly beneficial — the long-term benefits of such policies are questionable.
As the pressure to promote public health increasingly falls on suppliers rather than consumers, fast-food companies will adapt to public demands in counterproductive ways, with new options developed to maintain consumer satisfaction and to placate critics without addressing major health problems in any serious and significant way.
Perhaps worst of all, media outlets and public officials that shift blame for American obesity onto fast-food companies only further the misconception that these companies are somehow more responsible for individuals’ health problems than anything else.
We are the generation that will have no choice but to face the problems that come with America’s dependence on fast food. Without an understanding and acknowledgment of the choices that we, not fast-food corporations or restaurants, make that lead to our poor health, it will be all too easy to fall back on this convenient scapegoat model. Students — as future leaders and as young people brought up in an era that knows more about food than any other — have a responsibility to hold themselves and the American public accountable for the choices they make.
Ryan Townsend is a sophomore majoring in business administration. His column “The Blame Game” runs Tuesdays.