New York City has passed a regulation that is aimed at helping New Yorkers make more informed and healthier choices when they go out to eat. Starting in March, many of New York's restaurant chains will be required to show calorie information on their menus and menu boards. This is just the latest in a series of health regulations involving New York dining establishments, as Paige Kollock reports.
The new regulation will require any chain restaurant in New York City that has 15 or more outlets anywhere in the U.S. to post calorie information on its menus and menu boards. This represents about 10 percent of the city's restaurants. City health officials say, when people see calorie content at the point of making a choice, they use it. And officials project the measure will help tens of thousands of New Yorkers prone to obesity and type 2 diabetes.
New York Deputy Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett explains, "Our position is that people need somebody to help them protect their health."
Bar owner Lee Seinfeld has been in the business for more than 30 years. With three bars in New York, he has seen a lot of people come and go, drink too much, tip too little and, of course, smoke. Until 2003, that is, when the New York Department of Health banned smoking in all bars and restaurants.
Seinfeld is not happy with the ban. He says, "I was very upset about it. I knew it would affect my business. It did affect my business. Business was off for a good three-four months and even to this day it still affects my business because I have customers outside smoking."
Roughly 17 percent of New Yorkers smoke -- not enough to convince the city's health department to let them keep puffing away. The same department decided in 2006 to ban the use of trans fats in all New York eating establishments.
Deputy Health Commissioner Dr. Bassett believes that the policy is in the best interest of the public. She says, "We took lead out of lead paint, we put fluoride in the water, we passed rules that you have to wear a seat belt. We didn't leave it up to people to choose their risks. It's a risk the people have no way of judging when they sit down and eat food at a restaurant."
New Yorkers are divided. One teenager says, "I think it's good because it shows that they care about us." Another responds, "Me, I don't like it, because I like eating a lot."
Yet another person said, "I love the fact that if I go to a restaurant and my clothes still smell nice. Before [the smoking ban], you would come out smelly and I hated it. So this is a good thing for me." Another man, while smoking his cigarette, says, "I understand that people that don't like the smell and whatnot, but what about us?"
Trans fat is a form of solid fat used in fried foods and baked goods. They came on the market in the early 1900s, and restaurants used them widely because of their long shelf life and easy storage. At the time, the U.S. government endorsed the use of trans fats for cooking over saturated fats.
Chuck Hunt works for the New York State Restaurant Association. He wonders if the regulation is really helping. "Many people, as a result of that, are going back to products that are higher in saturated fats, which makes you wonder if we're making any progress."
Hunt says that when the government asked for a "voluntary switch," many restaurants complied, but the legally-binding ban angered restaurant owners. "We feel the democratic way to do things like this is through education rather than legislation or regulation. When I grew up, which was many years ago, your mother was the one that was supposed to tell you what you should and shouldn't eat , not the government," he said.
But what happens when a parenting force is absent? One woman says she was taught by her parent, "I know what's healthy for me because my mother is a nutritionist. I'm lucky, and I'm educated in the sense of what's good for you. But a lot of people unfortunately don't know, they're raised on McDonalds."
And New York city officials are working to help people understand. The new regulations requiring chain restaurants to post calorie information goes into effect at the end of March.