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When Restaurants Promise Health Benefits, They’re Crossing the Line

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Miracle foods and wellness tonics aren’t any less dubious when part of a high-end menu

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It’s difficult to overstate the importance of a good, balanced diet when it comes to a person’s health; few things can have as great an impact on a person’s well-being than the kind and quantity of foods they eat. When patients see me in my pediatric practice for regular well checks, one of the things I never fail to discuss is the quality of their nutritional habits.

But expecting some kind of medicinal value from your meal is a lousy reason to dine out.

Patrons pulling up a chair at New York’s AbcV, the latest venture by famed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, could be forgiven for hoping otherwise. Featuring a drink menu that includes a section called “Vibrations” — organ-specific, herb-infused nonalcoholic “tonics” with names like “brain” and “heart” — it might be reasonably assumed that tippling a concoction with gotu kola in it must have some kind of salubrious neurochemical effect. As New York Times critic Pete Wells noted in his review earlier this summer, the juices’ claimed benefits are significant enough to merit a disclaimer on the menu:

“These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA,” reads a footnote attached to the menu descriptor “restorative tonics.” “These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you are pregnant, nursing, have a medical condition or take medications, please consult with a healthcare professional before use.”

What this disclaimer says, in so many words, is that the only reason to order a “brain” cocktail is if it tastes good — despite the fact that the restaurant assures diners, in a clunkily worded mission statement on its website, that its “high vibration foods” embrace balance with beauty, wellness, wisdom, and love to nurture our personal and planetary ecosystems.”

For those who ascribe to “high vibration” eating, the meal they’re enjoying attunes them to the planet’s health in a vague way that somehow makes them healthier, too. But in actuality, the menu’s phrasing imparts AbcV’s herbal tonics with a patina of therapeutic benefit that’s wholly without evidence to support it; because the FDA looks askance at assertions of medicinal value without reliable evidence, AbcV threw in that disclaimer for good measure. (You’ll have to consult your clergyperson about whether the skullcap — a relative of mint in the “spirit” beverage gets you anywhere with the Almighty.)

In other words, the only way “high vibration” dining could have any grounding in reality would be if servers actually shook the dishes really, really fast while placing them on the table, which seems rather alarming and messy. Attributing vibrational goodness to the ingredients themselves is utterly uncoupled from medical or nutritional reality, and is merely a novel way of saying “magic.” However, a magical pathway to wellness is an appealing thought, so it’s no surprise restaurants would start using it as a way of attracting patrons.

AbcV is hardly alone when it comes to upscale restaurants promising more than a yummy meal. Browsers of Cafe Gratitude’s website are handily directed to its “detox market,” replete with cleanses that offer no benefit beyond what buyers’ kidneys and liver are already accomplishing. True Food Kitchen serves up a menu that purportedly fights inflammation, which it claims can reduce risk of heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. One of the first things you see when you click on Austin’s Picnik is a blurb touting the benefits of butter coffee (which sounds odd but possibly tasty), including fat-burning and -balancing hormones, among others. (The “Butter Coffee 101” page has a disclaimer of its own that its statements are based merely on the opinions of the purveyors.)

Overstated claims of medicinal effects from various foods are nothing new, of course. Grocery check-out aisles are chock-full of publications announcing the miraculous effects of some diet, detox, or miracle plant. Apparently intent on mortgaging every ounce of his credibility as a cardiothoracic surgeon in service to daytime TV hucksterism, Dr. Oz is constantly touting unsupported benefits of different ingredients that go far beyond their simple nutritional value.

In an explainer for Vox last year, Julia Belluz listed numerous reasons that nutritional science is fraught with shortcomings. In short: Designing randomized studies to compare one diet to another is essentially impossible, different people respond to the same foods in different ways, conclusions about long-term benefits are often extrapolated from short-term observations, and information collected about what people have been eating is often drawn from their own unreliable or incomplete recollection.

These limitations make it challenging to establish solid recommendations about how and what to eat. And when even venerable medical institutions like the Cleveland Clinic start promulgating overblown statements about the benefit from foods, a development I lamented recently in the Washington Post, it’s hardly surprising that restaurateurs would want to get in on the act.

When diners at AbcV throw back a “heart” cocktail or enjoy a particularly vibrational plate of slow-roasted beets, they’re simply getting a hefty serving of marketing. Categorically, it’s really no different from appreciating the speed with which the waitstaff whisk crumbs off the tablecloth between courses, or playing pretend that the meal involves space travel. It may inform the pleasure people get from their time at the restaurant, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the dishes or drinks themselves.

“I think it’s terrific that restaurants, including AbcV, are focusing on the ethics of what they serve in addition to flavor,” says Alan Levinovitz, a professor of religious studies at James Madison University. Levinovitz is the author of The Gluten Lie, a skeptical examination of the myths that underlie American thinking about food. “However, it does the sustainability movement — and the vegetarian movement — no favors to associate good goals with sloppy thinking,” he continues. “By folding ‘good vibrations’ into the rationale for eating only plants, restaurants like this distract from rigorous, evidence-based arguments for the benefits of eating more plants.”

The problem with places like AbcV or True Food Kitchen attaching health claims to their menus isn’t limited to affluent patrons shelling out whatever surcharge comes with the celestial humming of the lentils. These claims contribute to the fallacious notion that people can eat or supplement their way out of various medical conditions simply by ingesting more of the miracle compound du jour. From oat bran to turmeric, over time I’ve watched with a combination of bemusement and frustration as one ingredient replaces another in the cavalcade of miracle foods that will supposedly cure what ails us if we just consume enough of them

Evidence-based medicine can’t claim to be perfect, but it provides the most reliable approach to a person’s health. I’ve seen both friends on social media and people in my own practice turn to different dietary supplements, purportedly containing health-giving food derivatives, for the management of diagnoses where there is unlikely to be any real benefit. While I try to take a respectful approach to this kind of complimentary wellness regimen, so long as it’s not actively harmful, these supplements are frequently quite pricy, and they should never supplant evidence-based treatments. Medical treatments often come with side effects and cannot promise to fix everything, but they’ve had to withstand far more vigorous scrutiny about what they will actually accomplish for you than anything you’ll get for your cash at Cafe Gratitude.

Among the most credibly established dietary recommendations is to make one’s intake largely plants, though it’s less clear that excluding meat and dairy entirely makes a person healthier than eating them in limited amounts. A fine dining alternative for vegetarians and vegans wanting an entire menu tailored to them, rather than a handful of items, is reason enough for places like AbcV to exist. (Maybe now Moby can stop moping around Denny’s?) I haven’t been to the restaurant, but its offerings certainly look delicious enough to warrant a visit for that reason alone.

But when restaurants imply that drinking an expensive tonic has some benefit for your brain, or that there’s any meaningful change in a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s after eating their food, they’ve crossed an important line. A meal isn’t medicine, and presenting it as such is misinforming people. Aside from warnings about undercooked ingredients, or cautions about ingredients that could be harmful to certain diners, disclaimers shouldn’t be appearing in menus — because restaurants shouldn’t be making claims that require them in the first place.

Daniel Summers, a regular contributing columnist at Slate, is a pediatrician and writer living in New England. Vance Lump is an illustrator in the Pacific Northwest.