550 billion calories. That’s how many calories would be consumed if each of the billion or so McDonald’s patrons bought the restaurant’s signature BigMac, which comes in at a whopping 550 calories (and that is sans drink and fries). While many people, myself included, have previously enjoyed such meals in a state of ignorant bliss, that will all soon come to an end, as McDonald’s has reported they will now display the calorie content of all of their products on the menu. McDonald’s hope is that people will see the 550 calorie count next to the BigMac and opt for the caesar salad with grilled chicken, which comes in at a lean 190 calories, thus reducing the size of the customers’ waistbands without decreasing the company’s profits.
However, according to a report released by the the United States Department of Agriculture, studies have shown that displaying calories on menus has had little to no effect on the calories consumed by patrons. So will calorie counting really improve a nation’s overall health?
For a different perspective on this question, I looked at a region with a very different food-related problem: Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).
Unpredictable rain patterns have lead to poor harvests, and increased food prices have led to an epidemic of malnutrition in the Horn of Africa. Nearly 15 million people in Western Africa are at risk for malnutrition, and nearly 250,000 young children have already been treated by aid organizations for acute malnutrition. So what can be done, on a more sustainable level, to ensure that these Western African nations have enough nutritious food to feed their citizens?
One group, HarvestPlus, is working to develop more nutritious and resilient crops in an effort to prevent future malnutrition crises. HarvestPlus has been trying to cross the yellow potato found throughout Western Africa with a sweet potato that can survive in the harsh SSA growing conditions. The new spuds are full of Vitamin A, a nutrient essential for healthy eyesight and proper cell growth that is often unavailable in the food supplies of developing nations. HarvestPlus’ efforts to introduce this new vitamin-enriched crop seem to be paying off, as 60% of the households that were given the new potato in 2007 were still consuming it two years later. Large government campaigns have been deployed throughout Africa to encourage further harvesting of these wonder potatoes and incorporation of crops into the daily diet of their citizens.
What I take away from the dichotomous situations in the United States and SSA is that, whether you are trying to eat less or eat enough to stay alive, the quality and nutritional value of the food means just as much as the amount of food you consume. Thus, instead of sticking calorie counts next to the foods on their menu, perhaps McDonald’s should post the nutrients, if any, that are found in their products.
Within the next few years, maybe fast food chains will learn from groups like HarvestPlus. And who knows? As a result, your chicken nuggets could be fortified with your daily requirement of riboflavin.
To learn more about the food crisis in West Africa, and what you can do to help, visit the UNICEF website.
For more information on HarvestPlus and their initiatives, visit the HarvestPlus website.
Click here to view a video about the Orange Revolution in Mozambique, which was published by the International Potato Center.