Will calories be on the menu too?

Tue, May 1, 2012, 01:00

The Minister for Health wants restaurants to tell us how many calories are in each serving, but the industry isn’t biting on the idea

THE HEART Attack Grill in Las Vegas is a vile-sounding, hospital-themed restaurant where waitresses wear tight nurses’ uniforms as the owner, Jon Basso, swans about dressed like a cardiologist. On Basso’s menu are “Flatliner fries” cooked in lard, shakes made with pure cream and quadruple bypass burgers containing 10,000 calories – or nearly five times a man’s daily recommended intake.

The restaurant also offers free meals to anyone weighing more than 350lbs. In the past several weeks, two diners have been carried out of the place on stretchers after suffering heart attacks while its spokesman, a morbidly obese man, died last year. He was 29.

Basso has many justifications for doing business the way he does – he has even suggested he is highlighting the perils of obesity through the venture – and claims it attracts “an avant-garde clientele, thrill-seekers, risk-takers”. He told the Los Angeles Times last month that his establishment was a “bad for you but fun” restaurant that “attracts people who don’t really take good care of their health”.

No kidding.

The Heart Attack Grill is the kind of restaurant that would give our Minister for Health James Reilly nightmares, but at least it meets his criteria for listing the calories on menus. Reilly is on a mission to make us healthier and he believes an important step is to make all restaurants tell us exactly how many calories are in everything.

There is certainly no getting away from the seriousness of the country’s alarming weight gain in recent years. According to official figures, more than 5,000 Irish people die every year because they are overweight or obese.

Reilly’s latest attempts to address the problem of obesity have not been welcomed with open arms by the industry, while the Restaurants Association of Ireland has been particularly vocal in its objections to the proposals that might cost its members a lot of money. Its chief executive Adrian Cummins is livid; he says the plan will cost his industry more than €100 million.

“To do it properly it will cost a restaurant €5,000 and there are 23,000 restaurants, so you can do the maths yourself. You are talking about €110 million for an industry that cannot get the banks to give them a cent. All restaurants are struggling to survive and this is the last thing they need.

“We support tackling obesity, of course we do, but this is not the way to do it. It has to start with teaching children in primary and secondary schools about nutrition.

“Common sense needs to be brought to bear here, not least because calories on menus won’t make a blind bit of difference to the obesity levels in Ireland,” he warns. “It will be seen as a great initiative for a month but it will fizzle out.

“How would you even police it? Are environmental health officers going to be roaming around with clipboards. There will be pitched battles between them and the chefs about what is the accurate calorie reading of a particular meal in a particular restaurant. It is ridiculous.”

Bay in Clontarf does not think carrying calories on its menus is ridiculous. Just over 18 months ago, it launched a new menu which was broken down by its nutritional components.

On it you learn that its “weekend brunch”, made up of “eggs cooked as you like, bacon, sausage, black and white Clonakilty pudding, tomatoes, beans, with Bay’s fennel seed brown, coeliac or white bread”, is a fairly hefty 1,173 calories, while the healthy options breakfast, made up of “poached eggs, bacon, grilled tomatoes and baked beans with Bay’s home relish with Bay’s fennel seed brown, coeliac or white bread” costs €3 less and has just 555 calories.

The owner, Niamh Costello, says the calorie counting has changed the way many diners in the restaurant eat. Bay launched it in conjunction with a nutrition company called Health Pro. The initial fee for the calorie breakdown was €10,000 and there is also an annual fee.

“We feel that it is money well spent and it gives people choices and more information to make them,” Costello says. “A lot of time people have no idea what calories they are consuming and the menu gives them pause for thought. People can ignore it if they want.

“Some people are shocked when they see that a scone can have almost 1,000 calories, they consider it a snack.

“It is our unique selling point and we are quite happy to be flying the flag. I can completely understand some chefs who change their menus daily giving out. For them it would be a logistical nightmare but for most restaurants that have certain set things, it is not too hard.”

She says some people have complained and say they would rather not be told how many calories they are eating on a night out, but the complaints “are few and far between and we continue to grow, which is not bad in a recession”.

Restaurants operate in one sphere but the big chains in another and different regulations apply. Dr Reilly wrote to 19 of the biggest chains doing business in Ireland last October looking for their support for calorie posting on menu boards.

Unsurprisingly the response was mixed. McDonald’s and Burger King sought ministerial meetings to discuss the proposals and Eddie Rocket’s asked for “step-by-step guidelines” on how to proceed. Supermac’s said it had “certain concerns” but promised to give it due consideration while the highly regarded Bombay Pantry said it could not make the changes because of the cost involved.

The first company to respond positively was Domino’s, one of Ireland’s largest pizza chains, and from today it is putting calorie information on the ordering section of its website. The move comes in the wake of Domino’s signing up to the Responsibility Deal government initiative in the UK. The deal was drawn up by British health secretary Andrew Lansley and includes pledges to cut the use of salt and trans-fats.

While many companies in the UK have resisted the change, Domino’s has acted. Georgina Wald, the company’s communications director for both Britain and Ireland, said it seemed “ridiculous” not to extend it [calorie information] to the Republic as well. It already has nutritional information for its best-selling pizzas, as well as sides and desserts per 100g and per portion, available on takeafreshlook.ie, as well as a food guide for allergens, details of no GM, no artificial colours or flavours, no hydrogenated fats, so much of the work that was needed had already been done.

Wald stresses that Domino’s is all about free access to information and providing consumers with choices, but she is not entirely convinced that calorie listings will make a whole lot of difference to ordering habits.

She says Domino’s experience in the US, where calories are on menus in some states, suggests that people will continue to eat what they want whether or not the calorie count is listed. “When people want a treat, the calorie levels are a smaller part of the decision-making process than when it comes to everyday items such as full-fat milk versus skimmed milk,” she says. “Having said that, there is no reason not to give people the information and the choices.”

She points to other steps the company is taking such as reducing the salt and fat levels – all experts accept that this has to be done slowly so consumer tastebuds can have time to adapt – adding that the pizza chain offers over more than 10 vegetable toppings and reduced fat mozzarella.

Food companies can, however, only go so far and Wald, like Cummins and Costello, says that the obesity problems in the developed world can only be resolved by extensive government-backed education programmes.

She declines to say how much the calorie counting has cost the company other that to say it was not cheap. “It is hugely expensive to ascertain the calorie values and it is a major investment for us.”

According to Domino’s, a large pizza is sufficient for three people – its large rustica pizza – made with chicken breast, bacon, baby spinach and plum tomatoes – cut into 10 slices is 164 calories a slice. Wald says customers order pizzas typically for sharing and as part of a meal deal. A meal deal featuring a rustica, a garlic pizza bread, potato wedges and cookies costs €19.99 and is supposed to feed four people and, if so, each person will consume an entirely reasonable 700 calories.

When Pricewatch suggests three slices of pizza seems on the small side (what can we say, we’re greedy), Wald says: “There has to be a degree of personal responsibility. We are not here to tell people what they can and can not eat. We recommend that three people share a large pizza but if you want to eat more than that, then it is entirely up to you.”

CALORIES ON MENUS: THE VIEW ON TWITTER

Restaurants are not the problem. Processed food and lethargy are. Teach young people about food. – Rory Cobbe

Absolutely, then it’s up to the individual to make their own choices whether they be good or bad. – Joanne Coughlan

Who thought of such an idiotic idea as putting calorie counts on restaurant menus? A village somewhere is missing its idiot. – David Fox

No! I want to enjoy my grub guilt-free the very odd occasion I eat out. – John McCay

I don’t think I’d ever eat out again if I knew how many calories was in the food, takes the enjoyment out of it. – Laura Hogan

Tough enough out there for restaurants etc. Let people decide for themselves on what they want to eat. – Darren O’Reilly

200 calories of McDonald’s are very different from 200 calories of fresh, seasonal and artisan food. – Ross Golden Bannon

Fast food joints (or chain places) yes. Restaurants with seasonal menus etc, no I don’t think it’s feasible. – Orla McDermott

No. It’s not a big deal to do it but the majority of customers don’t want to know. We asked 100 of ours and 80 per cent said no. – Colin Ahern

No way. When you are out you don’t want to be calorie counting. However fast food, might not be any harm. – Cara McDermott

No it’s ridiculous! People need to be taught about real fresh healthy food not bloody calorie counting. – Niamh O’Reilly

Yes, perhaps displayed in a way that you don’t have to view them, e.g. side panel on menu that can be filled open. – Siobhan O’Keefe