‘60 Minutes’: Obesity Epidemic Requires Obese Government

On Sunday’s CBS "60 Minutes," anchor Lesley Stahl began a segment on calorie labeling for fast food by making this alarmist proclamation: "Obesity rates continue to spiral out of control in this country and nutritionists say one main reason is how dependent we've become on eating out." Enter the big government hero:

Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden is in charge of regulating New York City's $11 billion restaurant market...the chains are up against a formidable foe, because Frieden has a record of making big industry bend to his will. He's the one who forced smoking out of city bars and artery-clogging trans fats out of city restaurants. Both those bans spread nationwide, which is also happening with his new crusade.

Frieden’s latest "crusade" is to force big fast food chains nationwide to label the calories of all of their products, which were exempt from doing so. As Stahl explained, "Now, one of the most powerful health officials in the country wants to change that by forcing chain restaurants like McDonald's and Wendy's to spell out exactly how fattening their food is right when you decide what to order."

In addition to Stahl's depiction of obesity as being "out of control," both her and Frieden depicted the average consumers as morons. Frieden condescendingly remarked that, "You might think that tuna salad, because it says it's salad, is healthier." Stahl later introduced Cornell Professor Brian Wansink, a marketing and nutritional expert, who studied mall food courts to monitor people’s calorie consumption from fast food. Stahl summed it up in this way: "He uses the mall as a laboratory, observing the food-court crowd like other scientists study rare tribes." She followed by mentioning that Wansink was also the author of "Mindless Eating." If people really are this dumb, it would make sense to have the government take control.

Apparently, not only are consumers too stupid to know that fast food is fattening, but they are also incapable of using modern technology as well. At least according to Frieden:

What restaurants are doing now is a sham. They're putting information on web sites, and they know perfectly well that very few people see it there. They put it there so they can say they're doing something good.

Taking her cue from Frieden, Stahl pressed Wendy’s spokesperson, Denny Lynch, on the issue:

STAHL: What do you say to parents who are concerned that their children are overweight and they want this information?

LYNCH: I say to them that if you have a computer, log on to our web site, and you can see that information...

STAHL: That's not easy! You're going to go take your kids out to dinner, you've worked all day, and you're going to... you're telling them to go to a computer?

Actually it only took a simple Google search and three clicks, about thirty seconds, to find a printer-friendly Wendy’s nutrition chart. It was precisely because of this on-line information that big fast food became a target, as Stahl admitted: "The chains were singled out because they already publish nutritional information about their food-- the idea being they've already done the calculating." As Lynch accurately pointed out: "In essence, you are penalizing the restaurant chains that are voluntarily providing information to consumers."

Of course for Stahl, the fast food chains were motivated by the same thing that motivates all evil corporations, money:

But what's healthy for consumers may not be healthy for business. In 2003, the chain Ruby Tuesday tried listing calories on its menus and sales dropped. Soon, most calorie numbers vanished. Aren't you truly afraid that, by listing the calories, you're going to lose money?

Viewers will remember that the next time they see a fast food commercial on CBS.

Stahl gave Frieden the final word on the issue, who ended the segment with the same hyped up rhetoric with which it began:

Obesity is a terrible epidemic. We don't understand all the causes of it, but we do know that it is undermining the health of our society in so many ways. We need to take action. This is one measure that we think will make some progress in this area. It's not going to solve the problem, but it's part of a solution.

Meanwhile, government remains power hungry with no sign of getting its fill anytime soon.

Here is the full transcript of the segment:

LESLEY STAHL: Obesity rates continue to spiral out of control in this country and nutritionists say one main reason is how dependent we've become on eating out. When you cook at home, most ingredients in your cupboard have mandatory F.D.A. Nutrition labels, but restaurants are exempt. So when you place your order, you can only guestimate how many calories you'll be putting in your mouth. Now, one of the most powerful health officials in the country wants to change that by forcing chain restaurants like McDonald's and Wendy's to spell out exactly how fattening their food is right when you decide what to order. The idea is gaining support nationwide, but also fierce opposition from the restaurant industry itself. It all started last December, when New York City passed a regulation requiring chain restaurants to post the calories of their food right on their menus or menu boards.

THOMAS FRIEDEN: We think it will encourage people to choose lower-calorie options because that information will be available to them.

STAHL: Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden is in charge of regulating New York City's $11 billion restaurant market. These restaurants do not want to do this.

FRIEDEN: They really hate it.

STAHL: They hate it.

FRIEDEN: There's no question about that.

STAHL: Now, most of the chains have the nutritional information somewhere.

FRIEDEN: Usually on a web site hidden somewhere, or on the package liner or the tray liner after you've bought the product.

STAHL: Why isn't that enough? If you care about the calories, you can find out.

FRIEDEN: No one is going to check a web site, then go to the local burger joint and decide what to buy. People do look at the menu board. The menu board is the most prominent thing within a fast food restaurant.

STAHL: The regulation would cover mainly big chains like the colonel, the king and the clown. McDonald's?

FRIEDEN: Absolutely.

STAHL: K.F.C.?

FRIEDEN: Yep.

STAHL: Starbucks?

FRIEDEN: Yep.

STAHL: He wants people to see, as they order, that some combo meals, like this one from Burger King, pack 2,200 calories-- more calories than many adults need in a day. Some Starbucks drinks are more fattening than Big Macs. And even what seems good for you might be anything but.

FRIEDEN: You might think that tuna salad, because it says it's salad, is healthier. But you might see it's many more calories than a roast beef sandwich. And you might prefer the roast beef sandwich, too. You were having the tuna salad because you thought it was healthy.

STAHL: Brian Wansink is a nutrition and marketing professor at Cornell.

BRIAN WANSINK: Would you mind if I ask you a few questions?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No.

STAHL: He uses the mall as a laboratory, observing the food- court crowd like other scientists study rare tribes.

WANSINK: Well, how many calories do you think is in that?

UNIDENTIFED WOMAN B: I have no idea.

STAHL: Wansink, who even wrote a book called "Mindless Eating," finds that people always underestimate calories, but they get it especially wrong when they're eating something they think is healthy. Today, he's concentrating on meals from Subway...

SUBWAY COMMERCIAL ANNOUNCER: This is Jared.

STAHL: ... Which markets itself as the healthy fast-food alternative.

JARED: So he created the Subway diet.

STAHL: Here, he asked people to estimate the calories of an especially caloric combo: A foot-long Subway with mayo, chips and juice.

WANSINK: Now, for this, you estimated that it had about 300 calories.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Right.

WANSINK: In reality, it has 1,390.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Wow.

WANSINK: It's 1,390 calories.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN C: Oh, goodness, God.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN B: That's more than half you eat in... you're supposed to eat in a day, yeah?

WANSINK: Yeah, it is. When people are eating in a restaurant that they think is healthy, people grossly underestimate how much they eat by about 50%.

STAHL: So, they eat much more than they think they're eating?

WANSINK: By about twice as much. That mayonnaise you ate probably was not healthy. The extra cookie you ate probably wasn't that healthy. The chips probably weren't that healthy. Well, let's say, for instance, that we would have had the calories listed on the menu when you ordered something like that. Would that influence what you ordered?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN C: Absolutely. I don't think I would have gotten it. I mean, 1,350 calories for a Subway. I mean...

STAHL: The calorie labeling in New York would not apply to calorie Meccas like Chinese restaurants, delis, and fancy French bistros. The chains were singled out because they already publish nutritional information about their food-- the idea being they've already done the calculating. Wendy's spokesperson Denny Lynch say's that's unfair.

DENNY LYNCH: In essence, you are penalizing the restaurant chains that are voluntarily providing information to consumers.

STAHL: But if you weren't already providing it, you were exempt?

LYNCH: Yes.

STAHL: The industry feels you're picking on the chains because they were doing something positive, and they get whacked for it.

FRIEDEN: We're saying, if you're doing it, put it where people will actually see it. Empower your consumers.

STAHL: But what's healthy for consumers may not be healthy for business. In 2003, the chain Ruby Tuesday tried listing calories on its menus and sales dropped. Soon, most calorie numbers vanished. Aren't you truly afraid that, by listing the calories, you're going to lose money?

LYNCH: Absolutely not.

STAHL: Not?

LYNCH: If we were afraid to provide the information, why would we voluntarily provide it?

FRIEDEN: What restaurants are doing now is a sham. They're putting information on web sites, and they know perfectly well that very few people see it there. They put it there so they can say they're doing something good.

STAHL: What do you say to parents who are concerned that their children are overweight and they want this information?

LYNCH: I say to them that if you have a computer, log on to our web site, and you can see that information...

STAHL: That's not easy! You're going to go take your kids out to dinner, you've worked all day, and you're going to... you're telling them to go to a computer?

LYNCH: We think that the poster is a good solution.

STAHL: The poster-- last year, Wendy's introduced a poster with lots of nutritional numbers, calories amongst them. But as opposed to other displays in bright colors, the poster is drab and easy to miss.

LYNCH: If people are interested in calories or they're interested in...

STAHL: But what if they're not interested in calories?

LYNCH: They're probably not going to look anywhere for it. If they're not interested...

STAHL: Well, if it's on the menu board, there it is. They won't have to look for it.

LYNCH: If you can provide accurate information.

STAHL: He says that because Americans love to customize, adding cheese or extra mayo, providing accurate information is nearly impossible and would certainly take the fast out of fast food. He showed us a Wendy's menu board that lists the combos.

LYNCH: Well, at Wendy's, we offer five substitutions for the fries, and then three types of drinks. So you can order a combo 234 different ways.

STAHL: Oh, my God. He then showed us what it would look like.

LYNCH: And, obviously, it's... no one can read it, and you would have to see this from eight feet away.

STAHL: Let me see. This is... this is absurd. Oh, my gosh. This problem isn't unique to Wendy's. Consider Starbucks, where you can order drinks 87,000 different ways. A cup of joe can be five calories, but order a vente white chocolate mocha, add milk and whipped cream, and it nears 800 calories. Dunkin' Donuts made a mocked-up menu board to show Commissioner Frieden it would be unreadable.

FRIEDEN: This is what they said they would have to do.

STAHL: Okay. Well, that is pretty tiny, and I think, if I were in the store and that was way up high, I would have trouble seeing it.

FRIEDEN: Very hard to read. So, we asked our print shop at the Health Department, couldn't you do this more clearly? And in just a couple of hours, they came back with this.

STAHL: ( Laughs ) So, this is from your own... oh, man! And that has all the same information on it?

FRIEDEN: All the same information. No different.

STAHL: While the battle of the mock-ups was being waged, Subway decided to do it for real. Over the summer, they began posting calorie values on their menu boards in New York City. Bill Schetinni, head of marketing at Subway, came with me to order my first calorie-informed sub. Oh, I can really see the calories. It's very clear. The board is not cluttered, but would it reflect my order? Roast chicken, listed at 310 calories. I want a foot-long Italian bread. But the calorie number on the board is for a six-inch sub, so I need to double the number in my head. Where do I see calories on the bread?

BILL SCHETTINI: Hold on. The calories on the bread are figured into the sandwich.

STAHL: I got it, okay. I want mayo. I like mayo. Good. Now, how do I check on my calories?

SCHETTINI: That kicks it up 110 more calories.

STAHL: Where do I see that?

SCHETTINI: Well, it would be on the sneeze-guard cling back here.

STAHL: The sneeze-guard cling was a separate posting. But where was the mayo?

SCHETTINI: Sorry, it's not in there, but it is in the brochure.

STAHL: Already, I'm confused. My sandwich actually came in at over 700 calories. No matter how you slice it, complying could take the fast, out of fast food. But Subway's determined to try, unlike the rest of the industry, which argues calorie labeling is not only confusing, it's downright condescending to you, the customer.

LYNCH: We've given you the option to find this information, to look up this information, to use this information. You're telling me that you're not taking the choice, but that is your choice.

STAHL: But the chains are up against a formidable foe, because Frieden has a record of making big industry bend to his will. He's the one who forced smoking out of city bars and artery- clogging trans fats out of city restaurants. Both those bans spread nationwide, which is also happening with his new crusade. Do you think you're going to have to go in and fight this in Seattle, in California and in the other states that are now seeming to want to have their own regulations like this?

LYNCH: We are engaged in conversations in each one of those markets because...

STAHL: Separately.

LYNCH: Separately.

STAHL: And so, for the chains, it's war, which they're fighting with lawyers and lobbyists. In California, the industry convinced Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto menu labeling, calling it impractical. And in New York, the State Restaurant Association successfully sued to stop calories from going up on the board because the city had singled out those voluntarily providing the information. But Dr. Frieden is now rewriting the regulation and is certain it will pass.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN D: Okay, tasty meal with cheese. Big Mac meal.

STAHL: There's still the ultimate question: Will the menu board labeling work? Professor Wansink says his research shows there's a possibility it could backfire. Do you ever see people ordering the low-fat meal, main course, and then saying, well, I didn't eat anything, and then ordering a hot fudge sundae for dessert as if...

WANSINK: ( Chuckles ) Oh yeah, absolutely. And actually, this is called calorie compensation.

STAHL: Oh, there's a name for this.

WANSINK: Yes, yes. And... and what happens is you think you're doing yourself good, and so you reward yourself later on. So, for instance...

STAHL: People do that?

WANSINK: Absolutely, they do. If they believe they ate this nice, healthy lunch, they're more likely to eat snacks and eat more calories of it later on in the day.

STAHL: There's little scientific evidence that posting calories will make people eat less, but Commissioner Frieden says it's worth the try and, he says, there's the shame factor. He hopes that restaurants will be embarrassed into being more responsible.

FRIEDEN: Obesity is a terrible epidemic. We don't understand all the causes of it, but we do know that it is undermining the health of our society in so many ways. We need to take action. This is one measure that we think will make some progress in this area. It's not going to solve the problem, but it's part of a solution.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC