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.

Only last week Carton House announced it was providing nutritional analysis of dishes on its menus, including allergen symbols and calorie counting, as is its restaurant in Co Kildare and in the Brown Thomas Grafton Street store.

Many larger food chains are set to implement the change shortly, but they were already under pressure internationally, and have introduced calorie labelling in other jurisdictions. McDonald’s, for example, which already provides the information to its customers in Britain and Northern Ireland, plans to introduce calorie labelling in August.

The US has led the way in calorie menu labelling, which was introduced on a voluntary basis in 2003. Five years later, New York put it into law and more than 30 US cities have since followed suit. Later this year, a federal law will come into effect making calorie display mandatory in all restaurant chains with 20 outlets or more.

Similar laws have been enacted in Australia while a voluntary scheme is in place in the UK.

Minister for Health James Reilly says it is unfair that chains such as McDonald’s and Subway are co-operating, while others such as Burger King are not. “What are the likes of Burger King afraid of that they don’t want to tell people what’s in their product,” he bluntly asked last week.

Burger King responded through its parent company in the UK. A spokeswoman said the company offered to meet the Minister last March to discuss his proposals. At no point had it refused to participate in an industry-wide calorie labelling scheme.

“We note the report and will be reviewing its recommendations, and we remain committed to dialogue with the Irish authorities,” she said.

Reilly initiative  'potentially unhelpful'

Avoca, one of the most successful Irish food companies in recent years, says it will introduce calorie labelling if this is required by the Minister.

However, managing director Simon Pratt wonders whether Reilly isn’t “barking up the wrong tree” with an initiative that may be “too simplistic and therefore potentially unhelpful”.

“One may say, well surely it’s no harm to put the calorific details on menus but the danger is that by focusing on calorie counting we may be missing much more important factors. Also, if the focus is on calories alone, will restaurateurs then be inclined to change recipes to include low fat and sugar-free additives etc., which may turn out to be more harmful?”

Pratt says the healthy food/obesity debate needs to encompass a wider range of issues. Soft drinks, he argues, are a huge culprit in terms of obesity, but less well understood is the effect of “low fat” and “sugar-free” products. “A lot of people assume that using these products instead of the full fat or sugared versions is a healthier choice. Yet despite the huge increase in the sale of these products we are continuing to get fatter. It seems the body doesn’t recognise a lot of these synthetic additives and sweeteners and cannot break them down which in turn leads to weight gain.”