Wednesday 19th September 2018

Government Obesity Policy Proposal for Restaurants

Obesity continues to be a problem here in the UK. It is reported that the Government is considering an experiment to attempt to tackle this, by forcing restaurants to label all menu items with the number of calories. This proposal has apparently resulted in a row between Cabinet members, since some feel the burden placed on restaurants will be too great.

With more and more meals being eaten outside of the home, it is inevitable that restaurants will come under scrutiny. But will this labelling be effective or useful?

The idea certainly isn’t new: many UK restaurant chains do have full nutrition and allergy information readily available. And since 2011, America has had in place an initiative to get all restaurants to display calories, which has now become compulsory.

But, the USA Centre for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show no decline in the percentage of Americans who fall within the category of ‘Obese’ (39.8%) between 2011 and 2017.

So how effective would it be here in the UK? Most people going to a restaurant wouldn’t have nutrition on their minds at all. To appear on a menu, it would need to be a very simple display, hence calories only. But this is a very blunt instrument. In my opinion the information for sugars, salt, fat and saturates would be much more informative and valuable, especially for those with health issues to consider. Values supplied for calories would also very much be an approximation, since restaurant meals are not standardised and will never be served with exactly the same quantities. Steaks are not all the same size!

There could be a couple of benefits from this labelling, though depending upon what’s included. For example, the EU has been very soft on alcoholic drinks. If the Government did decide to include alcoholic drinks in nutrition labelling, diners would then see that half a bottle of wine gives them about 300 calories.

Also, it might bring portion sizes under the spotlight. Some meals might look reasonably healthy as a small portion, but a colossal portion size will really push up the calories.

Restaurateurs will need to decide how to obtain the calorie values on their meals? Lab analysis is clearly too costly, so they will need to use published data for ingredients, preferably using a software package designed to streamline the process. Given that many chefs and restaurateurs would have very limited experience, using software that has very good support would be important.

Is it reasonable to expect the restaurant to carry out such work? Obviously, for a chain such a Wetherspoons, whilst it’s a demanding exercise, given their resources, it would have a relatively minimum impact. For a one-off restaurant, it would be a significant, and possibly overwhelming time burden, when many restaurants are extremely busy, and in some cases struggling, or failing, to make a profit.

In my view, the very limited potential benefits from this initiative as it stands simply wouldn’t justify this burden on restaurants.

Dr David Bartley