TORONTO - Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to nutrition, NDP health critic France Gelinas said Tuesday as she again introduced a bill to force chain restaurants to put calorie counts on their menus.
There's simply no easy way for people to tell which foods are loaded with calories and sodium and which are at least a little bit healthier, said Gelinas.
"If you are on a diet where you have to limit your sodium intake, there would be no way of knowing just by looking at the menus," she said.
"Did you know the bran muffin has almost double the calories of the Boston cream-filled doughnut, at 410 calories for the muffin and 250 for the doughnut?"
Gelinas wants chain restaurants to list calories beside the price of each item on their menus and use an asterisk to highlight foods with high sodium counts.
"This is not a ban. All that we’re giving them is information," she said.
"The menu items will still be the same, the prices will still be the same, but you will have more knowledge, and when it comes to nutrition, knowledge is power."
Restaurants have the information on calories and sodium content, but often refer people to their websites to get it, said Gelinas.
Her bill would require restaurants to also provide free brochures containing detailed nutritional information similar to what is provided on packaged foods at the grocery store.
"I’m not picky: if you want to have a tray liner, if you want to have a photocopy, it doesn’t matter, but you have to make the full nutritional information available to people in a brochure," said Gelinas.
The Centre for Science in the Public Interest said studies from the United States, where providing nutritional information is the law, show it does help reduce caloric intake and give helpful advice to people at risk of heart attacks or strokes from a high-sodium diet.
"You can tell looking at a menu item almost whether it’s got fruits and vegetables in it, but sodium can be added by stealth, you cannot know at all," said the centre's executive director, Bill Jeffrey.
"Calories, it’s so difficult to estimate it, and studies have demonstrated that even trained dieticians can’t estimate it well."
Health Minister Deb Matthews said Ontario has a very serious problem with childhood obesity and she wants experts to study the idea of menu labelling to see if it will help.
"It has some appeal, I’ll be honest with you, but I think it’s important that we do it in the context of the research," she said.
"It has some merit and I want to look at it more closely."
Premier Dalton McGuinty, trying to avoid another accusation he's running a nanny-state government, said he was looking forward to the debate on putting calorie counts on menus.
"It’s about, I think, better informing families," said McGuinty.
"It’s not about telling them what to do, but better informing them so they can make wiser choices when it comes to the kinds of foods that they want to purchases for the kids, for example."
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said a government facing a $15-billion deficit should have higher priorities than creating more bureaucracy to oversee restaurant menus.
"It should not be a priority to open up some new department to police menus in the province," said Hudak. "I think it’s wrong."
Gelinas' bill would apply to any restaurant chain with $5 million a year in revenues and at least five establishments in Ontario.
Private member's bills rarely become law in Ontario, and Gelinas' last attempt at nutritional labelling died on the order paper.