From this week, it is now law that larger “out-of-home” food businesses will have to display calories on their menus and food packaging. This means that any restaurant, cafe or takeaway business with over 250 employees will need to show the energetic value of food items in a place clearly visible to the customer. The new measures are being put in place as part of the governments’ strategy to tackle obesity and facilitate healthier decisions.
However, the move has already been labelled as “disastrous” for the estimated 1.25 million people with an eating disorder. There are also questions raised as to how effective displaying calories will be on changing behaviours for the general population.
The new policy aims to facilitate healthier menu decisions, especially for those who do not cook or are less confident about recognising healthy options. Several restaurants and food outlets, such as Wagamamas and McDonalds already list their calories and other nutritional information. Placing nutritional information in restaurants may help to improve awareness of the “health halo” of foods. This halo can influence how we view the health of mid-tier restaurants compared to take out food outlets. A 2018 study(1) found that fast food outlet meals typically contained fewer calories than restaurants, despite being seen as the less healthy option.
Moreover, some meals may be labelled as healthy, and calorie labelling can help to bring awareness to this. This is especially in the case of meals and drinks where toppings can add up to a higher amount of calories than expected. One finding was that people tended to consume an additional 200 kcal daily when eating out of the home. By including labelling on menus, consumers may be better informed about the nutrition of out-of-the-home meals that they choose to purchase.
Another argument for displaying calories is that it will push chain restaurants to reformulate recipes. This may include include options that have a better nutrition profile (2). Previously, the levy on sugar sweetened beverages placed the onus on brands to reformulate rather than placing the responsibility on the consumer. Reformulation will change the environment to facilitate healthier choices, without passing on the responsibility to the consumer.
For people with eating disorders, choosing food can already be a source of anxiety and potential guilt. Having calories listed on menus could worsen these feelings. Counting calories can be a key feature of many eating disorders, with calories in menus exacerbating the focus on this. This comes from many months of lockdown and restrictions, with BEAT charity reporting significant rises in demand for their eating disorder helplines over the last year.
Food is much more than simply calories. Adding something like salmon to a plain salad might increase the calories listed, but will also provide omega-3 fatty acids and protein. Not to mention this will make the salad more satiating! Moreover, the listed calories don’t take into account other factors that will influence how your body responds to the food, such as caloric availability and fibre content.
Although providing calorie labelling may help consumers to make an informed decision around food, it risks overlooking the bigger picture of nutrition. It also risks causing additional distress to those with eating disorders. Introducing laws and regulations that make companies improve their recipes may be more beneficial. This would change the environment to facilitate healthier food choices, and minimise the potential harm to vulnerable groups.