Will putting calories on menus change the way we eat?
What we need to nurture is a love of food, a culture where food is valued and enjoyed, not analysed and feared
Keeping count. The green numbers denote the calories for sandwiches on the menu at a US restaurant. Photograph: Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Over the last four weeks you may have been grappling with a new year’s resolution to get more active, eat healthier, lose weight.
But when you decide to head out to dinner, would it help you maintain your efforts if the restaurant menu had calorie counts on display? Or would it just serve as a guilty reminder that you are supposed to be tightening that belt around your waist too?
As the new year dawned with a renewed (for now) collective health consciousness, the Government published yet another industry consultation on the proposal “to require that calories be displayed on the menus of all food businesses including restaurants, takeaways, fast-food outlets, coffee shops, cafes, catering companies, delicatessens and pubs”.
We have been here before. Simon Harris is the third Fine Gael Minister for Health who has threatened to introduce such legislation, after they initially asked large fast-food chains to voluntarily put calorie counts on their menus in 2011 and did not get the response they were looking for. They never managed to get it over the line and, with a fresh election looming, perhaps this policy will slip through the net again.
The catering industry will be hoping it does. Businesses have come out against the move on the grounds that it will be hugely costly, inaccurate and impossible to enforce. Restaurants will incur immense time and cost to assess the calorific content of every ingredient, recipe, and dish and to retrain their chefs.
Calculating calories requires standardised ingredients and an assumption of fixed quantities in every recipe. How does one account for the difference between, say, lean indoor-reared pork and the much fattier (and tastier) outdoor reared old breeds?
What about the extra nob of butter or dash of cream the chef adds to finish a sauce? A 2010 US study showed that even in chain restaurants with standardised menus, measured calories were on average 18 per cent higher than listed on the menu.
But as diners, should we want this policy slip through the net?
Obesity rates Latest figures on obesity rates in Ireland show that 60 per cent of the adult population is overweight or obese, with only 37 per cent of adults at a normal weight. One in five children is overweight. Clearly this is a major health crisis that needs to be tackled urgently.
Could putting calorie counts on our menus support efforts to make us a slimmer, healthier nation?
The evidence is not clear. This policy originated in the US, where it was introduced largely in response to “supersizing” of meals in fast-food restaurants. Studies on its effectiveness tend to show marginal to no effect in reducing calorie intake, and, given their short-term nature, no proven links to actual reductions in obesity.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) however says that based on its 2012 consultation, consumers are “overwhelmingly in favour”. So would this move make us healthier or could it affect our food choices and food culture in unforeseen ways?
The “calories in, calories out” approach is a gross oversimplification of how food affects our bodies. The 1,000 calories gained from fresh whole ingredients is very different from the 1,000 calories from processed junk foods. Nuts and seeds, for example, are high in calories but also provide protein, fibre, good fats and a range of micronutrients and antioxidants, and they release their energy slowly in the body.
The same calorie count from a chocolate bar or cake is very different, bringing none of the added nutritional benefits and releasing the energy rapidly causing blood sugar to spike and then dip, leaving you hungrier sooner. This is why reducing calorie count at one sitting in a restaurant does not necessarily correlate to overall reduced calorie intake or weight loss.
Calorie counting is the wrong approach to tackling obesity and will probably be ineffective, but more concerning is what this approach says about our attitude to food and the kind of food culture we want to promote.
Do we really want to take our food and health policy lead from the United States? US Centers for Disease Control figures show that 70 per cent of the US adult population is overweight or obese and things are not getting any better. Its policies are not working.
Thinking of food in terms of calorie counts and nutritional tables can create a negative relationship with food and does nothing to encourage better eating behaviours. In fact, a 2012 study showed that the country with highest awareness of nutritional labelling and calorie content of food is the US, but this has not helped produce healthier eaters. Cooking more at home and sitting down around the table together to eat, however, are activities that do correlate with healthier eating. What we need to nurture is a love of food, a culture where food is valued and enjoyed, not analysed and feared.
The Government says the objective of putting calories on menus is “to empower customers to make informed choices”. This policy, if implemented, will reduce choice and have a detrimental effect on the quality of what we eat. It will lead to greater standardisation of dishes and menus, less support of our small food producers and farmers who produce ingredients that naturally vary throughout the seasons, more closures of independent restaurants, and more chefs who just decide they have had enough. Not only will this not benefit our eating habits and health but will also be detrimental to our entire food culture.
There is a growing call for food education in this country. The next government would do well to heed that call. As a country we need to take an entirely different approach to food. If the next government really wants to empower the consumer, it needs to address access to and affordability of fresh raw ingredients, cooking skills, time available to cook food at home and the constant barrage of marketing of junk foods.
That would require radical new thinking and concerted policy efforts. It would also require a move away from a sole focus on individual responsibility, to address the raft of structural and systemic issues that impact how we eat.
In the meantime, ask yourself want kind of food culture you want: do you want the choice to eat in independent restaurants with changing menus and fresh, seasonal ingredients?
And when you eat out, who you want doing the cooking: a chef or a nutritionist?
Ruth Hegarty is the director of egg&chicken food projects & consulting, an agency dedicated to working on food business development, food policy and food education projects