Gotham Gazette

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Let’s Give New Yorkers Sweet Transparency — Lives are At Risk

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Fast food drinks (photo: @brraveheart)

A fast-food combo meal, perfect for lunch in a New York minute, right? Not so fast. A recent study of fast-food chain restaurants found that the default drink size included with combo meals at most restaurants contains more than an entire day’s worth of added sugars.

With New Yorkers resorting to fast food out of convenience or necessity due to limited access to healthier options, it becomes an issue of public health and equity to ensure that every consumer has the information they need to make informed decisions about the food that they put in their bodies. Excessive salt warnings are already in place in New York City, why not the same for added sugars? 

That is why the New York City Council must pass Intro. 1326, a bill that would require chain restaurants to post an added sugar warning icon on food and drink items that contain more than a day’s worth of added sugars. Consumers are currently in the dark about the amount of added sugars in made-to-order food and fountain drinks. Thus, it is essential that all menu items (not just prepackaged items) receive an added sugar warning icon when they contain excessive amounts of sugar. There is no more powerful tool than information and this bill puts the power back in the hands of consumers to make informed choices. 

Studies show the deep importance of this issue to personal and public health.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found that most medium-size fountain colas pack in more than 1.5 days’ worth of added sugars. Ordering a large cola? Two days’ worth. Perhaps most concerning, all of the “kid” sized drinks exceeded daily added sugar recommendations for 1- to 3-year-olds. The convenience of a combo meal or quick takeout from fast-food chains comes at a steep price to our health.

In conjunction with its study of soda offerings at fast-food restaurants, CSPI conducted a poll in New York State and found overwhelming support across diverse groups for added sugar warning icons, similar to the salt warning icons already required in New York City. Eighty-five percent (85%) of New York City residents support warnings in chain restaurants on food and drink items that contain more than a day’s worth of added sugars. 

New York City has been at the forefront in empowering people with information to make the best health decisions for themselves and their families. We were the first city in the United States to adopt sodium warning labels in 2015.

Since then, the evidence has continued to mount about the harmful consequences of a diet high in added sugars, especially for children. Nearly half of our elementary school children do not have a healthy weight. More troubling, 20% of kindergarten students and 25% of Head Start students have obesity, putting them at risk for Type 2 diabetes.

We know how challenging the last 16 months have been for our restaurants, and we must continue to find ways to ensure that our small businesses are able to recover stronger. This bill is not designed to put unreasonable strain on our small businesses and restaurants. It is just one of the many tools we need to implement to reduce disparate health outcomes and chronic disease in our city. 

There are many health and food equity issues that must be addressed in the coming years as we recover from this pandemic, and this is just one small step forward. Consumers want and deserve transparency from restaurants when it comes to making decisions about their health. Let’s give it to them.

New York City Council Member Mark Levine represents District 7 and is Chair of the Council’s Health Committee. Lesley Kroupa, JD, MS, RD is the Interim Policy Director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University. On Twitter @MarkLevineNYC & @LesleyKroupa.

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