Affixing labels on restaurant menus to broadcast each item’s calorie count is a small-fry approach to Maine’s problems of nutrition and obesity, and one that should be done. Having more information about what we are eating is always worthwhile.

Legislation sponsored by House Speaker Hannah Pingree, LD 1259, would mandate calorie labeling for all restaurants with 20 or more locations, including one in Maine. The reason for this is logical: Such establishments, all chains, have homogeneity of products and therefore consistent calorie counts.

Or, in other words, fast-food cheeseburgers or drive-through doughnuts are, actually, the low-hanging fruit.

Advocates for labeling point to studies from New York City, where calorie labels are attributed to helping more than 80 percent of diners change their eating habits. Closer to home, the success of grocery programs, such as Hannaford Guiding Stars labeling that measures products’ nutritional value versus calories, to improve consumers habits, is another point in the bill’s favor.

So, this empirical evidence seems clear: When consumers know a little more about the food they’re eating, they tend to make better choices. This is a natural tendency that should be encouraged.

Purveyors of high-calorie foods, however, are not to blame here. The real culprits are us omnivores, who can find it easy to disregard sensible food decisions. Intrinsically, we should know that eating something with the nickname “baconator” is probably not ideal for long-term health. Do we anyway?

Yessiree, every last delicious bite of it.

Knowing the calorie count of this aforementioned treat wouldn’t stop anyone from enjoying it. But it could, possibly, give pause for a second thought, which is important. A menu label doesn’t control what people decide to put into their stomachs; rather, it offers to feed their brains instead.

Labeling has fallen in the Legislature before because of the cost for business and its inclusion, in previous iterations, with unwieldy comprehensive public health omnibus legislation. Our state policymakers tried to supersize their health efforts, while failing to exercise portion control.

This bill is different, and while it does carry a cost for business, it is not one – given the proven success of other programs and the hopeful effect on public health – that is undeserved. If anything, these chains could stand to benefit from taking advantage of altered customer tastes after labeling becomes law.

We don’t think this bill is the first step toward enforcing puny European-sized portions on hearty American appetites, or shame people away from enjoying the foods they like. But Maine has the highest childhood obesity rate – 24 percent! – in New England. This must change.

Knowing what we’re eating is the first step.


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