Weighing up arguments for and against calorie listing

Mon, Jul 9, 2012, 01:00

SO, A SCONE contains 750 calories. Who knew? In Ireland, and perhaps everywhere, a scone is something that you have with a cup of coffee between your real meals. Until last week we didn’t know that the humble scone constitutes one-third of the calorie allowance for an adult woman.

Yep, three scones and you’re done for the day.

It is sad that the Minister of Health, James Reilly, and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland are forcing the restaurant industry to list the calorie content of dishes on its menus just as the calorie itself is falling into international disrepute.

As recently as last month, on June 30th, Gary Taubes published an article in the New York Times questioning the accuracy of the calorie system in assessing which foods are the most fattening.

He traces the history of the calorie, from its invention in 1878 by nutritionist Max Rubner to its march to glory, which didn’t really begin, Taubes says, until the 1960s.

Its great populiser, Carl Von Noorden, was actually in two minds about the calorie. Is the calorie a universally applicable unit which can measure how fattening all food is? Or is the type of food composing the calorie more significant?

The thing is, Carl Von Noorden couldn’t decide 100 years ago, the late Dr Atkins of the Atkins diet was pilloried for saying that fat is less damaging than sugar, and the food experts are no nearer unanimity now.

Gary Taubes is a science writer and author of the bestselling book Why We Get Fat; you can see why it is a bestseller with a title like that.

Being a serious food writer, once the occupation of poorly paid lady writers whose mission was to come up with recipes for economical hotpots, is now a pretty exciting occupation, almost like being a sports writer.

Food, which used to be as comforting as white bread eaten with lots of butter, is now a controversial area, delivering a couple of newsflashes a month.

This month’s newsflash is provided by an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr David Ludwig of Boston Children’s Hospital, and his associates, and summarised by Taubes.

Dr Ludwig compared three types of diet as eaten by people who had recently lost weight. He found that the low calorie, high carbohydrate diet recommended by the health experts for the past two or three decades puts weight on the fastest. If he is correct in his conclusions it is the quality of carbohydrates and the amount of insulin they elicit from the body that is the key point in weight gain.

Diets with a low glycemic index, rather than low calorie diets, are the way to keep weight off.

Meanwhile advertisements in Ireland for fish, potatoes and bread respectively are making the meaningless boast that those items are fat-free. That’s what happens when everyone thinks science is on their side.

This is now a full-blown controversy, and has been for some time. The late writer Nora Ephron, a great cook and observer of our fads, wrote about the evils of carbohydrates and how all steaks in her house were coated in sea salt and in butter.

I’m quoting journalists here to show how widely talked about the whole low calorie/high carb versus low carb/high calorie debate has been in the States, notwithstanding Mayor Bloomberg’s calorie listings imposed on restaurants in New York.

It is into this minefield of food science that the Minister of Health has now stepped. He wants the Restaurant Association of Ireland to encourage its members to voluntarily produce calorie counts on all its menus. The Restaurant Association is not best pleased about this directive, saying that it will cost €5,000 per establishment, and be impossible both to implement and to police. Dr Reilly wants similar calorie listings in fast food chains and cinemas.

I hold no brief for the restaurants of Ireland which have, most of them, murdered food and then smothered the corpse in snobbery and expense. Then they bring you your vegetables as side orders, on little kidney-shaped dishes, like specimens from a postmortem. Broccoli in your lasagne, anyone? Can you be out by 9.30pm? Don’t get me started. I must have a bun.

However, I do appreciate that this calorie listing, even if you agreed with its efficacy, is not a good fit with restaurants which are allegedly adding new dishes to their menus regularly, and have creative types in the kitchen who are flinging in a ladle of olive oil here and there and calling the results Mediterranean.

Calorie listings on menus do make more sense in fast food restaurants which serve a limited menu all the time, and in the cinemas, who seem determined to make us all as fat as pigs as quickly as possible.

However, even here some reservations have to be expressed, and these are mainly to do with the credibility of the health experts, which is now much lower than that of the fast food chains and of the cinemas flogging tanks of popcorn and buckets of cola.

Three pieces of fruitcake died in the making of this article.

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