Commons is bustling. Students mill around the salad bars, dessert trays and fruit baskets. One girl moves slower than the rest. She pauses by the baked goods, reaches for a brownie, then glances up, noticing something. She hesitates, frowning, and her hand wavers. She turns away from the tray of chocolaty goodness.
What changed her mind? A menu identifier, one of those white placards with nutritional information and a calorie count that accompany almost every dish served in Yale dining halls. For better or for worse, they influence the way that students eat.
Maybe this girl has paused because this card lists an exorbitant number of calories for a single brownie. These inaccuracies are pretty common: on the Yale Dining website, for example, every piece of fresh fruit is listed as having 63 calories each. It’s unlikely that an apple, orange, banana and kiwi all have the exact same calorie count. Maybe this girl is surprised by a sudden nummerical change in the richness of her brownie. Calorie counts on menu identifiers are not uniform over time: on Sundays in some dining halls, students are told that today’s brownies contain zero calories.
These cards have become the brunt of jokes around campus, but many students do not realize the inaccuracies of the calorie counts. And, given inaccurate and inconsistent information, students trying to make healthy choices can be led astray.
Many debate the value of the calorie-conscious culture these cards promote in Yale’s dining halls. Some argue that, by drawing attention to their daily caloric intake, Yale Dining allows students to prevent the drastic weight gain that leads to obesity, diabetes and other health complications. Others worry that calorie-counting facilitates a growing trend of eating disorders, particularly among young women.
These cards do have the potential to help students, but their current unreliability provokes more anxiety than it allays.
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Aaron Gertler ’15, a gluten-free, sugar-free and “almost dairy-free” eater and “self-described nutrition geek,” said that the two words he would use to describe Yale Dining are “unlimited vegetables.”
“That’s a big deal!” he shouted into the phone during our interview. Once he had calmed down, he added that, no matter what health plan a student wants to pursue, to a reasonable extent, the dining halls are there to assist in that plan.
Right now, according to Director of Residential Dining Cathy Van Dyke, Yale Dining’s primary initiatives include reducing the presence of processed foods on the menu and increasing the prevalence of plant-based foods and whole-grain breads. And students have noticed Yale Dining’s recent attention.
“It’s not reasonably possible to do better than Yale does in a cafeteria that serves thousands of people per day,” Gertler continued.
The menu identifiers are part of these efforts. They display information on allergies, vegan or vegetarian classification, an ingredients list, grams of fat, protein, etc., as well as a count of the calories in each dish. The idea behind the cards is that they will help students make informed decisions about the food they consume, said Van Dyke.
“This is especially important for people with food allergies or particular dietary constraints,” she added.
The cards were originally introduced in 1999. The earliest versions only included the name of the dish. In 2001, the dining halls added nutritional information — grams of fat, grams of sugar and calorie estimates. In 2003, the ingredients list was included, and in 2007 allergy information was printed on each card. This year, the menu identifiers have been redesigned with new icons and terminology to make the cards’ information clearer and more accessible.
Though allergy information was added last, this tends to be the most highly prioritized, and accurate, piece of data on the cards.
“The most important aspect is clearly indicating potential allergens as these can be life-threatening,” said Van Dyke.
After attending to these potentially fatal allergies, Yale Dining’s next priority is informing vegans and vegetarians of the contexts of each dish. Calorie estimation, a technically unessential bit of information, is prioritized last.
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But because calorie counts are not a top priority, they tend to be inaccurate, and thus lose students’ trust.
Erica Pandey ’17 argued that calories on most dishes are underestimated, while the calories on dessert items seem like exaggerations.
“I actively pay no attention to the cards because I think they’re very wrong,” she said.
Not everyone shares Pandey’s view. In fact, not everyone knows that these cards are there. Of the 40 students I informally surveyed over a lunch at Commons, only half had ever looked at the menu identifier cards. Boys and girls were equally likely to have noticed the cards, but once read, the information on them had far greater influence over women than men. The only male respondent who said that menu identifiers affected the way he ate explained that he was an athlete and had to watch his diet.
Ryan Campbell ’16, another man interviewed, pays attention to the cards primarily because of his allergy to tree nuts. To that end, he is “really thankful” that the dining halls have signs above the dishes.
He noted in our conversation, however, “there are mistakes on [the cards] every now and then.” If it seems like an allergen could have been omitted, he approaches dining hall staff and asks for clarification.
Although the menu identifiers serve many purposes, a majority of the girls influenced by the cards focused only on the calorie counts — not the ingredients list or the vegan/vegetarian classification — as the primary factor in their decision-making. Pandey, though not one of the girls interviewed for my survey, acknowledged that this information is hard to ignore.
“[The cards] make you remember that food has calories,” Pandey said.
While they grab students’ attention, the cards’ calorie counts aren’t reliable. Many students mentioned that they simply didn’t trust these figures. Three girls interviewed commented that the cards didn’t affect them for that reason alone. If the cards were perceived to be accurate, these students said they might take heed.
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On a card in Commons, a chocolate chip cookie is listed as having 457.13 calories per serving. But, given complaints about the perceived inaccuracy of menu identifiers, I decided to estimate the caloric value of a chocolate chip cookie on my own.
Each ingredient in a cookie recipe has a widely accepted and scientifically determined count of calories within it. For example, one tablespoon of butter (1/8 of a stick) contains approximately 100 calories. Using these numbers for each ingredient, you can predict how much energy is stored in whatever recipe you make.
For my own experiment, I consulted Yale Dining’s ingredient list for Yale’s chocolate chip cookies, and then searched for online recipes that also used these ingredients (the actual recipe from Yale Dining was not made available). I estimated the caloric value of an entire batch of cookies and then divided the total by the number of servings given for each recipe.
After averaging the caloric value of chocolate chip cookie recipes from Betty Crocker, Cook’s Illustrated, and Silver Palate, I determined that the average caloric value of a single cookie was 218 calories. As reported on their company websites, chocolate chip cookies from McDonalds are 160 calories and those from Subway are no more than 220.
In contrast, a Yale chocolate chip cookie racks up a whopping 457 calories, or so the cards say. It seems unlikely that a dining hall as health-conscious as Yale’s, would produce cookies that are more than twice as caloric as those of a fast food chain. More likely, the numbers on the cards are reporting twice the actual caloric value.
The process I used for my experiment is very similar to Yale Dining’s way of estimating calories, except that I did it all by hand. Yale Dining has a database of specific nutritional information, which it gathers from vendors as well as standard nutritional labels. Given their access to this information, it’s surprising that Yale lists such inaccurate data.
At first, I thought there was one possible explanation: that the dining halls might be measuring the serving size to be two or three cookies, instead of just one.
Serving sizes aren’t specified on menu identifiers. Chocolate chip cookies, for example, have a serving size of “1 serving.” Yale Dining looks to the USDA to establish portion size standards, Van Dyke said. However, the specific USDA guidelines aren’t included on the menu identifiers.
In the case of the cookie, Van Dyke did clarify that most nutritional information is for a single-sized serving, i.e. one cookie. Some other factor must be throwing off Yale’s estimations.
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As students peruse their options, are they really getting much help from these menu identifiers? With no serving sizes available and often-inaccurate calorie counts, it becomes difficult to see how this feature of these cards helps students make decisions about their health and nutrition.
People really do pay attention to these cards. Students with allergies and other dietary constraints, often consult them. But their reliability, especially in regard to caloric accuracy, is often in doubt.
But it is possible that including calorie counts on these cards leads students in the wrong direction. 86 percent of all eating disorders develop during college. And, in a study published in the Journal of American College Health in 1995, 91 percent of women recently surveyed on college campuses had attempted to control their weight through dieting, and 22 percent dieted “often” or “always.”
While Yale Dining’s priority is simply to provide information, it is still unclear whether such information helps more than it harms. Should we err on the side of calorie ignorance, or slip toward overwhelming awareness?
When surveyed about whether the cards impacted her eating habits, one girl admitted, glancing away uncomfortably: “No, but they should.”