Putting calories on menus - will it work?

By Sinead Hanley*

The evidence is that people eat less when calories are displayed on menus, and the practice of displaying calorie counts on on menus, now becoming more and more prevalent, aims to help consumers make more informed choices when buying food from restaurants, bars and cafés.

In Ireland, after a campaign as part of RTÉ's show Operation Transformation last year, some restaurants started to display calories on menus. More restaurants are expected to follow suit as a result of consumer demand.

An increasing number of consumers therefore, will be able to see the amount of calories in the foods for sale beside the prices when making their choice.

Research in America found that when calories were signalled on menus, people ate:
• 152 fewer calories at hamburger venues with each purchase
• 73 less calories at sandwich bars with each purchase
• 6% fewer calories overall each day.

If calorie intake was reduced by this much in Ireland, it would have a major effect on our obesity levels and therefore our type 2 diabetes problems.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) published a report recently called 'Calories on Menus in Ireland - a Report on a National Consultation' which recommended the introduction of a calorie menu labelling scheme for restaurants and other food service businesses.

Calorie labelling on restaurant menus, in other words guiding the customer on the calorie content of what they are eating, will help keep consumers better informed about healthy options when buying foods from food outlets such as restaurants, bars and cafés.

The report's findings revealed an overwhelming demand by consumers (96%) for calorie menu labelling in all or some food outlets, with 89% saying that calories should be displayed beside the price of food and drink items on the menu.

When asked whether calorie labelling should apply to outlets serving alcoholic drinks, 84% of consumers said calorie labelling of alcoholic beverages should apply in all or some outlets.

Nearly three in four food service businesses (73%) were in favour of calorie menu labelling in all or some food establishments.

When food and drinks are prepared outside the home, the consumer does not know what ingredients are used and how they are prepared, so calorie menu labelling is vital if people are to make more informed choices about what they eat.

When you consider that almost a quarter of the calorie intake of Irish adults under the age of 65 is consumed outside the home, the food service sector can potentially play a very positive role in promoting more health-conscious and informed food choices among consumers.

Diabetes is nearly four times as common as all types of cancer combined. It is fast becoming the 21st century's major public-health concern.

The risk of diabetes soars as the pounds pile on: a rise in BMI from 21 (healthy) to 35 (obese) means you are up to 50 to 80 times more likely to develop type 2.

Does putting calories on menus work?

Yes, the evidence is that people eat less when calories are displayed on menus.

How will putting calories on menus inform the consumer?

High calorie foods and drinks are widely available. Eating such foods and drinks too often will result in weight gain and lead to overweight and obesity. When foods and drinks are prepared outside the home, the consumer does not know how many calories are in them.

Some foods and drinks can be much higher in calories than consumers realise. For example a café latte could have about 200kcals, whereas a coffee with low fat milk would have approximately 20 kcals. When calories are on menus, the amount of calories in each food item for sale is shown.

This helps consumers to make more informed choices about what they eat.

Have calories on menus been used in any other countries?

Yes. Putting calories on menus was first introduced in America in 2003. In 2012 a new food law was introduced making it mandatory to display calories on menus throughout the U.S. Parts of Australia have also introduced calories on menus.

In the American and Australian states where putting calories on menus has been introduced, large food companies must, by law, display calories on their menus. In Britain and, some food businesses voluntarily put calories on menus.

The FSAI and the Food Standards Agency Northern Ireland (FSANI) are working together to develop a system for calorie menu label that works best throughout the island of Ireland.

Working together ensures a common approach to calorie menu labelling is in place in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. This benefits both consumers and food businesses throughout the island of Ireland.

Further information at http://www.fsai.ie/resources_publications.html

*Sinead Hanley is a dietitian and regional development officer with Diabetes Ireland

(This article is also published in the journal Diabetes Professional)

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