Calorie count: should this be next to every dish on a menu?

Governments should force restaurants and cafes to display nutritional information to help people eat less, say university professors.

28 February 2018

Does a menu showing a meal’s calories actually make people reduce what they eat, or do they still pick whatever they fancy?

It turns out the numbers do have an impact, a study has found, and the government has been urged to make calorie counting compulsory on menus.

Susan Jebb, a professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford and one of the authors of the study, tells Food Spark that labelling can reduce calorie intake by 8% or 50 calories.

“That’s not huge, but we have to remember we are not talking about treating people who are obese; we are talking about helping everyone just to avoid gaining weight,” she says.

The study also found that for a typical lunch of 600 calories, such as a slice of pizza and a soft drink, labels could reduce calories consumed by about 12%. This is the equivalent of a plain digestive biscuit or 71 calories.

So is mandatory menu labelling headed this way?

Time for a redesign?

Personally, Jebb thinks the government should require calorie labelling on menus in coffee shops, cafeterias and restaurants, but she admits it’s easier said than done at the moment.

Currently, much of the front-of-pack labelling of food is voluntary, even in supermarkets, but an added complication is this area is dictated by EU law – a factor that may change with Brexit.

Jebb says the government pushed very hard when it came to the traffic light labelling system in retailers, but there has not been as much effort to press cafes and restaurants on the issue.

She adds that it wouldn’t be an additional burden on foodservice operators, as they are already required by law to know the nutritional composition of their dishes and companies regularly redesign their menus.

“We need to start by absolutely saying very clearly that firstly there is good evidence this works – and for heaven’s sake, we really need to do something to control overconsumption,” she says.

“Secondly, I understand Which? have done a consumer survey which says that most consumers support calories on the menu, so people want it and it pushes health in the right direction.”

In fact, some places are already putting the calories on the menu, including Wetherspoon, Nando's and Eat.

Over in the United States, nutritional transparency is coming into effect in May, with restaurants and other outlets with 20 or more locations required to post calorie counts by law. This will include grocery stores, movie theatres, amusement parks, vending machines and restaurants. Several major chains in the US have already made the move, including Starbucks, bakery company Panera and McDonald's.

Stamping on stigma

Making it mandatory would also stop people feeling judged when it comes to their food choice, says Jebb.

“If it was the norm, that would start to disappear. We expect to see vegetarian options and gluten-free labelled, so I’m asking for a bit of calorie labelling for people to make an informed choice. If it’s everywhere there is much less chance people would feel judged and stigmatised,” she says.

There was some evidence in the study that the information has the biggest effect on calorie intake when people were surprised, and it could nudge them to a less calorific choice in the same food category, such as swapping a cake for a biscuit.

It may mean consumers can’t always have their cake and eat it, but something sweet is still on the menu.

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