When students grab a quick bite from a fast food joint near campus, calories are usually the last thing on their minds — but that could soon change.
On Feb. 24, Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews introduced new legislation that would require restaurants, supermarkets and convenience stores —with 20 or more locations around the province — to label calorie information on their products and menus. And yes, this includes many Ryerson student hot spots.
Calorie info for food and beverages, including alcohol, would be listed next to the price and size.
This is supposed to help combat childhood obesity, coax consumers to make healthier choices and therefore reduce Ontario health-care costs.
The idea of posting calories is not popular on campus though.
“As an average guy, I don’t necessarily know exactly what a calorie means,” said Shahzaib Afzal, a first-year engineering student. “And honestly, I’m more concerned about getting to class.”
Third-year nursing student Lianna Woollard says she dislikes the emphasis on calories. “In our society, people, especially females, are geared to think only about calories,” said Woollard. “There is a stigma about high calorie food. If I did see high calorie food, I would probably choose the one with lower calories, but you can burn off calories.”
Joshna Maharaj, assistant director and executive chef of Ryerson Food Services, says there are different ways to encourage healthy eating than the legislation proposes.
“The governing ethos around counting calories is an attitude we are trying to move away from,” said Maharaj. “There are good calories and there are bad calories. And that is not being captured in this new model.”
According to Maharaj, Ryerson Food Services is dedicated to getting food from local sustainable sources instead of counting calories, as well as increasing the volume of scratch cooking and promoting wholesome eating.
While the bill is creating a buzz, the Liberal government’s proposal has yet to be passed in the legislature.
Critisism of the proposal extends beyond Ryerson.
James Rilett is the vice-president for Restaurants Canada in Ontario. He’s against the public health inspectors’ authority to issue fines, which would range from $500 to $10,000.
“They really should have the province oversee it, but the problem is that’s going to cost the province a lot of money,” said Rilett. “They know it’s a bureaucracy-heavy program and they just want to put the cost on to the business.”
Instead of calorie counts on menus, Rilett suggests British Columbia’s Informed Dining program as a better alternative.
Though the program is now voluntary in Ontario and not associated with the provincial government, it has participating restaurants provide access to all nutritional information, not just calorie numbers.
This year, 17 establishments in Ontario — including Tim Hortons and Pizza Pizza — will implement the Informed Dining program.
Fiona Yeudall, dietitian and assistant professor at Ryerson’s School of Nutrition, is not entirely against the legislation. She thinks people who haven’t paid attention to the food they buy will be surprised by the number of calories they see.
“The legislature is trying to make it easier to stumble across the information in one sector,” said Yeudall.
“It’s always good to have the information, but it needs to be accompanied by an education campaign so people who are interested can interpret the context of calories and other nutrients in respect to their life.”
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on March 5, 2014.