Will calories appear on our menus?
IT IS likely to be several years before calorie labelling becomes a reality in restaurants and cafes across the country, but last week’s support for the proposal by Minister for Health James Reilly shows that this is an idea that is truly on the way.
Dr Reilly has given the food sector six months to implement a voluntary system but would have to legislate if he felt it necessary to compel businesses to tell customers how many calories their meals contain. This process could take some time, and might not even be completed in the current term of the Government.
However, the overwhelming public support for the idea, as revealed in the research by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, along with international trends in this direction make it likely calorie listings will start appearing on many menus in the near future.
The proposal has been attacked in some quarters as hailing from the “nanny state” but it’s hard to see why. Calorie menu labelling doesn’t involve any element of compulsion, but it does give consumers more information to make informed choices about the food they eat.
Indeed, the main problem seems to lie in getting consumers to pay heed to the health message inherent in calorie labelling. A US study found that only 15 per cent of them reported using the information provided. While this group purchased 106 fewer calories on average compared to the rest of the population, it’s a fair bet that the kind of people who read calorie information are also the very same people who look after their health best.
The authority maintains there are other, indirect benefits that accrue even to those who aren’t reading calorie information. These include a general demand for smaller portion sizes and for healthier foods and drink.
Calorie labelling is already in place on food packets but with one-quarter of calories consumed outside the home it’s clear that a significant information gap exists as things currently stand.
The thinking underpinning the initiative is that a modest reduction in calorie intake can make a massive difference to the health of the population. Portion sizes have increased massively in recent years but consumers might stop thinking “the bigger the better” if they knew how many calories they were consuming.
The brunt of any changes will be borne by food businesses, which will have to measure calorie content, standardise portion sizes and print new menus. This explains the strong opposition voiced by the restaurants and hotel trade, especially at the higher end of the market where meals are bespoke creations rather than mass-produced items. Only one-third of food businesses wanted calorie labelling introduced in all food businesses, according to research carried out by the authority.
The industry’s arguments about cost are undercut somewhat by the fact that some establishments have introduced calorie labelling without fuss or, it seems, any great difficulty. Some are chains, such as the Clarion group of hotels, but others are sole operators, such as Bay restaurant in Clontarf or the George Hotel in Limerick.