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Nutrition facts: dangerous data?

Beware, Duke! An insidious new hazard may soon be foisting itself upon the University community. In an era when danger can be found in everything from shampoo to cell phones, we are now being told that “posted food facts may be harmful.” Yes, that’s nutrition facts we’re talking about.

You probably thought any information about how to lead a healthy lifestyle would be helpful. No, according to Student Health Dietician Franca Alphin and Dining Services Director Jim Wulforst. Because food facts might be abused by students with eating disorders, Dining Services has determined that the information should not be posted at all.

Just so we’re clear: a beneficial public tool is being withheld because it could be misused by a disordered minority. By this logic, we need to make some other changes around the University. Ban the metal forks and knives at the Great Hall—a sociopath could use one to stab someone else. Forget about freedom of academic discourse—a radical Marxist treatise published by some literature professor could be misused by a revolutionary. And beer should definitely not be sold at the ’Dillo or Loop, because an alcoholic could use it to feed their disease.

I’m not clear on why Alphin and Wulforst think denying us nutrition facts is going to decrease the number of students with eating disorders. Given no information, a student with an undereating disorder is likely to get less accurate information from another source, make erroneous guesses about caloric content or simply not eat out of fear of the unknown. Certainly, they’re not going to say “screw it” and forego their anorexia. A few might use posted nutrition facts to further their eating disorder—there’s no way of knowing this without empirical research—but the root causes of eating disorders run deeper than the availability of data.

Alphin and Wulforst have also apparently forgotten about overeating disorders, which often result in part because students don’t know what they’re putting into their bodies. I’ve met people who genuinely think eating a couple Loop chicken sandwiches and fries every day constitutes a healthy diet. The agonizing experience of gaining weight without knowing why has led at least one of my friends to an undereating disorder; Alphin surely knows about this cycle and should know better than to inadvertently facilitate it.

The broader point here is that nutrition facts are just that—facts—and facts are not “bad.” The tenuously proferred theory that a minority could abuse the data does not mean they should be denied to the majority of students who could use them to gauge intake of vitamins, minerals, calories, protein and fat. There’s a reason the U.S. government mandates nutrition labels on food products. Similarly, there’s a reason Harvard, Northwestern and Ohio State—to name a few universities—have made nutrition information readily available for students. At, Ohio State students can easily determine the nutrition values of their food. Duke should follow suit.

The current policy has complicated the lives of another minority—those with food allergies. These students, employees and visitors have to go through the hassle of contacting Student Health dieticians to obtain the ingredient list for on-campus foods. Wulforst suggested an alternative of asking employees and/or managers for ingredient lists. Now we’re relying on the wraps lady to accurately assess whether a potentially deadly allergen is present in food?

Incidentally, intrepid vendor Jack Chao has bucked the anti-information rules at Quenchers, providing misleading nutritional data about his protein smoothies that is worse than nothing at all. The smoothies seem astoundingly low in calories, unless and until you realize that the posted data is only for the protein supplement and not for the rest of the smoothie. Tricky, but dangerous.

A reliable, accessible system for obtaining nutritional data would benefit the vast majority of students. I’d love to make sure I’m getting enough fiber. One of my friends would like to know if the Great Hall is using unhealthy oils so she doesn’t have to grill her own vegetables at home. People with food allergies surely would appreciate a full ingredients list without having to call some diet hotline.

This is America, people. Information can be used for good or for ill, but information is certainly not to be feared or suppressed. It’s time to make nutrition facts available on-site.

Andrew Collins is a Trinity senior and former University editor of The Chronicle. His column appears Tuesdays.


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