Will calorie counting on menus actually help us to eat a more healthy diet?
In the latest ploy to try and enforce healthy eating, the Food Standards Agency wants to introduce a voluntary roll out of calorie counting to restaurants and fast food outlets. A pilot scheme was introduced last year after research by the FSA indicated that consumers would like to see calorie labelling to help them make healthier choices. Eighteen caterers were involved in the trial & as well as high street chains, included leisure attractions and workplace caterers. Companies piloting the scheme report that it has been well received, especially by women on calorie controlled diets. However the evaluation of the scheme carried out by the FSA does not indicate whether people actually made healthier choices as a result.
Concerns have been raised that focusing on calories does not necessarily lead to a healthy balanced diet. It can lead to an obsession about calories & demonise certain foods. Some experts say that putting calorific values on menus does not promote a healthy attitude to food. Reducing the number of calories eaten isn’t necessarily a good thing. The nutritional value of the calories consumed is far more important. Nor does it necessarily change behaviour, especially of those most at risk of obesity, and there are fears that it could cause food anxiety in people who have an eating disorder.
Research on the topic has generally been inconclusive. Studies of similar schemes in America – which in many cities are compulsory - have indicated that people may have reduced their calorific intake in response to the menus, but have compensated by eating more at other meals and thus ended up eating just as many calories overall. Some consumers who reported their menu choice was affected by the inclusion of calorific values, turned out to have consumed the same number of calories after all when their receipts were checked by researchers.
When calculating the calorific value, caterers are allowed a 20 per cent error margin and would still meet trading standards. Recent research indicates that the food industry tends to be at the upper end of this, so the item chosen from the menu could actually contain a lot more calories than the customer thinks!
It is anticipated that roll out of the scheme would begin in the summer and in two years time having calories noted on menus could be the norm.