Calorie counting


MINISTER FOR Health Dr James Reilly has launched a public consultation process on the best way of putting calorie information on menus, as part of an effort to stem the rise of obesity. In parts of the United States, supplying calorie information next to each menu item is public health policy. With two out of every three men, and over half of all women in this State either overweight or obese, and one in five children aged between five and 12 overweight, the need for a range of health initiatives is clear.

The idea of calorie posting on menus or menu boards at restaurants has received growing attention as a potential policy lever to reduce energy intake and promote energy balance. But it is not a panacea: some people simply do not absorb this kind of information and require a different kind of intervention. For others, the health message will wear off with time and familiarity, something that has happened with anti-smoking campaigns. However, calorie display should benefit those who want to opt for the healthy option but who do not currently have the information they need to make an informed decision.

Is there evidence that such initiatives actually make a difference? According to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, research indicates that when calorie information is shown on menus, people eat 152 fewer calories in hamburger restaurants; 73 fewer in sandwich bars; and 6 per cent fewer calories overall. A key challenge to limiting energy intake is the public’s significant underestimation of the amount of calories in the foods they consume. One study that asked participants to estimate the caloric content of nine restaurant main courses found that 90 per cent underestimated the calorie content of less-healthy items. When calorie information was provided, consumers chose high calorie items approximately a third less often. Foods eaten away from home, especially fast food, are more energy dense and have a higher percentage of fat and sugar. And foods with a higher energy density are associated with excess energy consumption. People on a diet often find it hard to choose appropriate items from menus.

The Minister for Health has indicated he will, if necessary, bring in legislation to ensure caloric information is on all restaurant menus. The costs involved for restaurants are not insignificant at a difficult time for most in the sector. The initiative will not turn the tide on obesity on its own. But as part of a broader range of measures, it is a welcome step.