Obamacare’ Making Fast Food Healthier?

In recent years we’ve heard plenty about the most obvious selling point of “Obamacare” — its extension of health insurance coverage to 30 million people.

But Slate’s Matthew Yglesias says a much less noticed provision of the law — the federal rule requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus starting in 2013 — is already motivating chains to make strategic business decisions to develop healthier menus that could have a real impact on what we eat. Here’s how:

That corporate decision-making is the key to whether the new rule drives meaningful gains in public health. If chains continue to emphasize maximum fat at minimum cost, eating habits probably won’t change much. But if the labeling regulations really emphasize the dangers of high-fat foods and the benefits of fruits and vegetables, it could encourage healthier eating.

… Many people, myself included, enjoy cooking as a hobby. And it’s common for mass production to coexist indefinitely alongside artisanal methods or hobbies. Neither knitting nor custom-built furniture has vanished from the landscape, but home production of these items isn’t economically significant. Living standards improve because mass producers get better at making things, not because people turn backward to inefficient small-scale methods.

Eating is no different. If the worst of fast food is replaced by anything, it will be better fast food. Companies are out there trying to make it happen, and so far they’re succeeding in niche markets. Policies forcing more and more obvious disclosure of nutritional information should help the process along by at least creating a situation where firms that succeed in designing more healthful options have a way to credibly turn that into a business advantage.

It very well might not work. But diet and nutrition are arguably more important drivers of health than health care per se, and almost all of us eat more often than we see the doctor. So if a changing regulatory environment does encourage shifts in business models, this relatively undebated element of the new health care law could end up being one of the most significant.


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