Filmmaker and health enthusiast Casey Neistat (whose videos I usually love) played ‘Calorie Detective’ in a New York Times Op-Ed published today that explores the accuracy of nutrition facts on restaurant menus and store-bought foods. Unsurprisingly (because we haven’t yet figured out how to replace food workers with robots), he found that nutrition labels are probably not all that accurate, especially for foods that are made fresh in a kitchen. But his suggestion–that we start policing nutrition data to help curb obesity–is where I’m a little surprised: Why would we waste our time policing nutrition facts?
Look, I’m not a fan of calorie counting (for many reasons), but I know that for anyone who’s trying to lose or train themselves to make healthier food choices, learning about nutrition facts is important. Weight loss and health are more complicated than the old “calories in, calories out” cliche, but nevertheless: Calories matter, and it can be hugely helpful when chains like McDonald’s post nutrition facts. Because for a lot of us, just learning which foods are high in calories, sugar and fat is half the battle.
But that’s just the problem: It’s the fact that we aren’t educated about nutrition enough to have a sense of portion size, or which foods are nutritionally void calorie bombs that’s making us unhealthy, not the fact that nutrition labels aren’t perfectly accurate in restaurants.
Neistat is right that we have a problem with obesity, and clearly, he’s proven that we also have a problem with nutrition data. But those things are only linked if we’re totally dependent on nutrition labels to tell us what to eat, every time we eat. If we were better educated about how to portion, balance, and choose healthy meals to begin with, we probably wouldn’t need to worry that the burrito girl at Chipotle hasn’t perfected her ability to dole out the perfect serving size of cheese, or that Starbucks baristas aren’t as talented as a K-cup machine at measuring out our drinks.
Sure, I think food companies owe it to customers to provide a fairly accurate nutrition label (and Neistat is right: if we’re going to require it by law, then it might as well be useful). But policing companies down to margins of a few calories seems like a huge waste of resources, if you consider how much better off we’d be if we could figure out which foods were healthy without having to crunch numbers every time we eat.
Check out Neistat’s video over at the NYT and tell us what you think.