Last week, having powered through work on my usual diet of caffeine and sugar, I popped into my favorite health food restaurant in Shanghai. Recognizing me as a regular, the manager offered me their newest concoction: a jug-sized pumpkin spice latte. It was Friday, the weekend was nigh, and I was feeling weak-willed. I drank it down, and almost instantly felt the familiar wave of remorse sweep over me.
It is a feeling we’ve all experienced at some point. In most of the world’s developed societies, the demands of the working week put pressure on our food habits. In China and elsewhere, one consequence of this phenomenon is that more and more people are overeating. The negative health effects are clear: In addition to the dangers of being overweight, overconsumption of food can lead to feelings of regret and self-loathing, which spell danger for our mental health as well.
The incident in the restaurant got me thinking about how Chinese consumers can gain more control over what they put in their mouths. While educating others about healthy eating practices and encouraging people to be more mindful about what they eat may be long-term solutions to this issue, one initiative has already been rolled out in other countries: calorie labeling.
Illustrated by Liu Zhang/Sixth Tone
In parts of the United States, calorie labeling has been around since 2008. In New York City, restaurants are required to post nutritional information on all food sold on the premises. The state of California, meanwhile, has taken food labeling to another level entirely by asking restaurants to provide information about saturated fat, carbohydrate, and sodium content alongside standard calorie counts.
With that said, it is still debatable whether food labeling results in more conscientious eating habits. In a 2009 survey by the British Medical Journal, only 15 percent of customers in New York’s fast food restaurants reported referring to calorie information frequently. However, when taken as a broader drive to popularize knowledge of healthy eating, I believe that calorie labeling, by allowing customers to make more informed choices about what they consume, can be a useful weapon in the dining public’s arsenal.
In the two years I have lived in Shanghai, I have only discovered two calorie-conscious restaurants so far — both of which serve Western food. In China, calorie-labeling initiatives are far from becoming routine; in fact, they’re not even on the table.
An underlying reason is that analyzing the nutritional content of food is not part of China’s conventional culinary culture. This is reflected in some of the rules behind the country’s cooking techniques. For example, Chinese chefs traditionally learn to cook by roughly estimating the amount of each ingredient and adapting them to their own tastes — a concept known as shougan. This stands in contrast with the way in which many Westerners learn to cook according to standardized measurements — a tablespoon of oil, 100 grams of potatoes, 400 milliliters of water, and so on.
The lack of standardization in Chinese cuisine, alongside other philosophical concepts such as the balance of yin and yang, has been lauded by the British writer Lorraine Clissold as a system more conducive to forming good eating habits. Instead of supporting the idea that familiarity with nutritional content leads to consuming healthier food, Clissold argues that abandoning the microanalysis of food can serve as a form of emancipation. In other words, it is precisely because Chinese people do not fuss over nutritional content that they continue to see food itself as a form of nutrition, allowing them to remain sanguine about the dangers of overeating.
I find Clissold’s praise of my country’s food culture flattering, and understand her point that meticulously counting calories can foment anxiety about what we eat. However, I think her advice to abandon references to nutritional information is slightly misguided, as the relentless demands of work culture and growing access to convenience food have driven most Chinese further away than ever from traditional culinary principles.
At the same time, a new generation of educated, informed young people has emerged in China’s metropolitan areas. Health-conscious and familiar with the science of food, they represent an attractive market for restaurants that are as fastidious about what they serve as their customers are about what they eat.
Of course, due to the budgetary and labor resources involved, the vast majority of restaurants are not going to introduce calorie labeling on their own; rather, they must be compelled to do so in the same way that state and municipal governments have done in the U.S. While this may be difficult to impose on smaller restaurants, the case of New York has shown it should certainly be possible for larger chains. As China’s waistlines continue to expand, a holistic approach to nutrition — with calorie-labeling at its center — would mitigate the country’s growing health concerns.
(Header image: Calories are listed next to menu items in a restaurant in New York City, U.S., July 18, 2008. Chris Hondros/Getty Images/VCG)