Calorie counting doesn't add up

 

The Government wants restaurants to display calorie information; this is a pointless exercise that will help no one, writes JOHN McKENNA

AS PART of the Government’s plans to tackle the obesity problem in Ireland, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has opened a consultation process about displaying calorie information on menus.

Minister for Health Dr James Reilly wants “all restaurants” to be involved in this requirement, including creative, high-end restaurants whose distinctiveness rests on the fact that they change their menus on a daily basis.

The Minister is promising action “up to and including legislation”.

Our statute books are littered with bad laws, and whatever the FSAI and the Minister finally concoct will almost certainly be another example of unnecessary, indiscriminate law-making that will fail to serve its purpose.

Calorie counting has been enacted in many states in the US, and yet the US obesity epidemic rages on.

Why? Because calorie counting is a foolish way of looking at food. It is reductivist and mechanistic and, as the great Michael Pollan has pointed out, “to think of food as simply fuel is to completely misconstrue it.”

To equate the daily menu composed at Ballymaloe House with the burger and curry chips offer at Joe’s Cafe is to completely misconstrue the food served at these two places. They are not comparable, and their effect is completely different.

So, what should the Minister and the FSAI be doing instead of this pointless exercise in bureaucratic tyranny? Well, maybe they could start by reading a fabulous new book, An Everlasting Meal, by a young American called Tamar Adler.

Adler is a cook and an editor, and she writes like a goddess.

An Everlasting Mealis an unusual book. Notionally, it is a cookery book, but it doesn’t have very many recipes. Realistically, it’s a book of food and philosophy: Adler’s sub-heading is “Cooking with Economy and Grace”, and that is what she is trying to achieve; that is what she is trying to impart.

As Adler points out, most cookery books “begin where their writers are, asking that you collect the ingredients their writers have . . .” But most of us are not in that place, of course, so Adler suggests that “cooking is best approached from wherever you find yourself when you are hungry, and should extend long past the end of the page”.

One of the key elements of Adler’s work is taken directly from America’s greatest food writer, the late MFK Fisher, and it’s a piece of advice that should be inscribed above the door of the FSAI headquarters: “Balance the day, not each meal in the day.”

Healthy, responsible, delicious cooking can be indulgent at times, and at other times it will be frugal.

Balancing this daily act requires knowledge and skill, and that is what An Everlasting Mealimparts so successfully: the book makes you think about food and cooking in all its complex glory – how you source it, how you cook it, how you serve it.

Counting calories, on the other hand, is most definitely not thinking about food. Calorie counting is the old, derided, nutritionistic way of looking at food, and we should be very wary of suggesting that it is either helpful or informative.

So what approach from the FSAI and the Department of Health would best serve the interests of the nation’s health?

An education system that informs and instructs our schoolchildren about food in a holistic way is the simple answer.

Tamar Adler enshrines that wisdom, as does the brilliant Scottish food writer Joanna Blythman, whose new book, What To Eat,should be on everyone’s idea of the ideal Home Ec reading list.

Blythman’s purpose is to show that getting and cooking great food is a common sense business, and she opens with 20 Principles of Eating that are priceless: “See the value of cooking”; “Don’t be a sucker for processed foods”; “Be sceptical about nutrition advice from ‘experts’”; these are just some of the pearls of learning.

“Eating well can seem complicated, but, actually, it’s simple,” writes Blythman. Go tell that to the FSAI and the Minister for Health.

An Everlasting Mealis published by Scribner; What To Eatis published by Fourth Estate.

MEASURE FOR MEASURE WHAT’S YOUR CALORIE INTAKE?

Large popcorn at the cinema: 1,000-1,200 calories

Typical Irish breakfast: 1,100

Latte* 152

Cappuccino* 87

Americano* 10

Fruit smoothie 195

Quarter pounder meal * 1,005

Chicken salad 390

BLT sandwich 530

Battered fish chips 880

Side of garlic bread 164

*Medium

Source: FSAI