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Calories, "Healthy", and Restaurant Menus

I love information. Absolutely love it. The more I've reflected on this fact, the more I realize that my job, my hobbies, and my interests all tend to revolve around acquiring interesting data. So when California instituted its menu labeling law (California Health and Safety Code Section 114094) two years ago, I was very pleased, not only as a data-lover, but as someone who'd rather eat 600 calories over 1,100, given the choice on a menu.

One problem I've faced, however, is that not all restaurants are required to give nutrional information for their food - if a company has fewer than 20 locations, they're exempt. This is apparently because a "small" restaurant or chain can't afford the costs associated with food testing to determine nutritional info. I think that's a load of manure, personally (a chain with 15 restuarants is by no means small and poor), but it's the law. 

What really surprises me, though, is that restaurants that sell themselves as "healthy" refuse to go above and beyond the legal requirements and provide nutrional info. The worst offender I've found so far, and also a restaurant I love, is the Veggie Grill. But their opinion on the matter is pretty well spelled out in the following I received from them after complaining loudly on their Facebook page:

We apologize that we do not have full nutritional details on our menu items. The yet to be released FDA menu nutritional labeling guidelines requiring restaurants to have full nutritional details will apply only to restaurants with 20 or more locations as the government acknowledges that the effort to compile and maintain this information is too burdensome for smaller restaurant companies. 

We have been advised that we would need a large food analysis lab to do the analysis since we need to have a company with liability insurance to stand behind their work (we live in a very litigious society). This of course makes it an expensive proposition (approximately $30,000), particularly for a new, small company such as ours.

That being said, we are very proud of the fact that our menu is 100% plant-based with absolutely no cholesterol, animal fat, trans fat or high-fructose corn syrup. 

Numerous studies have shown that eating 100% plant-based foods is the best way to reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and to maintain a healthy weight. We recommend "The China Study" by Dr. T. Colin Campbell ( for anybody who would like to learn more about these studies.

As I believe you may be aware, additional information regarding our nutritional philosophy can be found at 

Our mission to build an enduring brand that helps people and the planet can only succeed if we listen carefully to guests such as yourself. Opening 7 restaurants and hiring 220 people over the past 4 tough years has been very difficult and expensive, but we are trying hard to make a go of it.

Are calories everything? No. And I agree that eating a plant based diet is almost by default healthier than one with meat, especially if that meat is factory-farmed. But calories, as well as other pieces of nutrional information, are vital for many people on many kinds of diets (weight loss, and otherwise). I've touched on this topic before, with swear words.

If you've never eaten at Veggie Grill, you're missing out on two things: very delicious passable-as-real-chicken-sandwich vegan food, and grease. Their food tastes good, in part, because it's high in fat, and likely high in salt as well. This is all well and good if you know what you're getting into, but when all the marketing material for a restaurant touts its health benefits while refusing any mention of meal calories, there's a strong likelihood of confusion. 

Above all else, it makes me wonder if the company is just too poor to do a nutrional analysis (not likely, given they only open in boutique locations with high rents, and charge full-service prices for their counter-service food), or if they're hiding something. All I know is that if I'm looking for low-calorie, I look elsewhere.

(This entry has been cross-posted to my new/old blog, Insignifica)

Dear Food Trucks,

I know the trucks aren't THAT big, but when you're going to an event with a half-dozen other trucks, which you know will get people visiting from all over the area, how about trying NOT to run out of food? Every non-dessert truck was out of lunch stuff, and turning people away, at the truck gathering at the Irvine Chamber of Commerce.

Also: There's gotta be something you can do about the routine 20 minute wait. That's absurd for those of us who already have to drive 10-15 minutes to get to you.

Rant mode off. One other thing: The Lime Truck's tofu taco was awesome.

Fuck you, Kogi.

kogi_logo_blk.pngI have very little experience with the Kogi food trucks. I know they're popular, I know the food is apparently pretty good, and I know they've got some vegan options. They're the darling of the new truck-based gourmet movement, and Food Network can't stop talking about them. Doing some research, it seems they bill themselves as natural food, made with love by the children of immigrants.

That's cool. I like good "natural" food. I also like to know what's in my food, both in terms of ingredients and calories.

For this, the Kogi folks think I'm a Nazi (no, really, they use the word "Nazi").

This post caught my eye today. For the "tl;dr" among you, it basically says that our food is so good, so awesome, and is made with so much love that we're not going to tell you how many calories it has. In fact, just the fact that you ask us nicely about the calories fills us with rage. How dare you - you wouldn't ask your grandma about it, because she's awesome too. Just the fact that you ask means you're comparing us to lowly fast food, and that's insulting, and you're a horrible person. So stop caring about calories, all you need to know is we're awesome.

(Interpretation mine. I find the original post even more insulting than what I wrote, however.)

Yeah, Kogi - fuck you.

People eat for different reasons, and lots of people, on lots of different kinds of diets (both weight-loss and health related) NEED to know the calories, sodium, or other chemistry-related aspects of their food. Otherwise, they have to skip it. Yes, they want "natural" food. Yes, they want their food to come from good sources. But they need to know this information so they know which of your items they can enjoy, or which they have to portion out and share with friends.

This goes beyond calories. Folks on restricted sodium diets have to know what they're eating. Others need to know how much fat is in their food. Contrary to your idealistic and insulting blog post, these people aren't bound by a "Nazi straight jacket" of nutritional information listings, they just want to know what's in their food - otherwise, they can't eat it at all.

You're growing, Kogi. You've got four trucks and your Culver City kitchen. You're getting national exposure, and people line up for hours to get a taco. That means, eventually, that you'll have to grow up too, and stop insulting people who want to eat your food.

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