As I walk down Spruce Street during the lunch hour craze, it's nearly impossible to slip through the mazes of people awaiting their food. To most students, the smoldered tin boxes that line the sidewalk are actually a desirable chain of mobile eateries. Yet the astonishing popularity of these houses of fat sparks the question - is student health in jeopardy?
Recently in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to legislate a citywide ban of the infamous trans fats. However, it's unlikely that we will see any comparable health movements in Philadelphia, the homeland of the succulent masterpiece that we all fondly know as the cheesesteak.
Though we have shown significant improvement, Philadelphia continues to rank regularly as one of the five fattest cities in America, according to the annual survey in Men's Fitness magazine. And while we may be elitist Ivy Leaguers, Penn students are no exception to this Philadelphian tradition.
"I try to have less fat wherever I can," popular food-truck owner Hemo Abdelaziz said. An admirable claim, yet the specific ingredients of Hemo's secret sauce remain a public mystery.
The public, however, has a right to know what they're eating.
While the ingredients can surely remain a secret, no food vendor - even Hemo - should be allowed to hide his food's nutritional value. Rather than restricting certain ingredients, like in New York, we should be educating people about healthy choices.
In grocery stores, such labels appear on every packaged product. With precise and reliable data, we have the personal choice whether or not to purchase an item.
At the Fresh Grocer, manager Jim Ronaldson noted that trans-fat information "used to be on the back of packages - now they put it in bold print on the front," and these readily available data have a positive effect on consumers' decisions. As the five-year manager of the store, Ronaldson has had plenty of time to observe the dietary habits of Penn students. "They're always reading the ingredients - always," he said.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, "food served for immediate consumption" has always been exempt from the nutrition-label requirement. But ultimately, it's food, and it can affect your health just as much as items from the grocery aisle. Therefore, the FDA should consider requiring restaurants and food vendors to provide nutrition information.
"It would be beneficial for all consumers to be able to view information about each menu item," Nutrition professor Stella Volpe said, adding that it may be difficult for restaurants that regularly tweak their menus.
Perhaps the government could perform a trial run with the help of volunteers, owners whose restaurants have simpler, more standardized menus. If this experiment proved successful, they could slowly expand to businesses with more complex and varying selections.
Dimitrios Dimopoulos, owner of Greek Lady and Allegro's Pizza, feels that this strategy would create a more health-conscious clientele and increase business productivity. Enthusiastic about the idea, he plans to create an integrative binder with nutritional information about each of his menu's selections. He would have no problem providing these details because the "food is consistent, so it's the same ingredients."
"We have nothing to hide," Dimopoulos said. "People should know exactly what they are eating."
Several chain restaurants already provide nutrition details for some of their selections. Chili's includes a "Guiltless Grill" menu, which provides calorie information, as well as total grams of carbohydrates, fats, saturated fats and fiber. Such information can grant health-conscious Penn students some peace of mind in their otherwise anxious lifestyles.
"I always find myself trying to estimate calories and fat content of food that I eat, and I haven't quite mastered the science yet," Wharton senior Sejal Patel said. "I would probably be more inclined to eat at a place that told me exactly how much fat, trans fat [or] cholesterol ... I was paying for. And I would also be less likely to splurge on something like dessert if I knew just how unhealthy it was."
If a box of Cheerios tells consumers its precise measure of dietary fiber per serving, eventually, so too should a sandwich from a Spruce Street food cart. If you're looking to stay within your daily allotment of saturated fat at Taco Pal, I'm pretty sure you'll have to be satisfied with just one bite of that burrito.
But maybe a label on that burrito would make people think twice before asking for sour cream.
Sharon Udasin is a College senior from East Brunswick, N.J. Her e-mail address is email@example.com. Shed a Little Light appears on Mondays.Comments powered by Disqus
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.