Calorie counts on menus might not help anti-obesity drive

Many of the UK’s biggest restaurant chains have told the Observer newspaper they won’t change their ingredients when regulations are introduced in April requiring them to include calorie counts for each item on their menus. Obesity campaigners also say the initiative is unlikely to have much impact.

The Observer surveyed 20 of the UK’s biggest restaurant and fast-food outlets and found most had been reformulating their menus to reduce fat, salt and sugar for several years, with many also publishing calorie counts on menus or on websites. It reported that a McDonald’s Big Mac has 508 calories, Wagamama’s hot chicken katsu curry has 1,089 and a large mixed grill with chips at Wetherspoon’s has 2,052.

McDonald’s claimed it had already reformulated its products and ninety per cent of core menu items are under 500 calories each, but said the company would adapt menus to provide specific calorie information for extras, such as cheese slices on burgers.

KFC’s head of food and quality, Jo Tivers, said the chain had been first in its sector to put calories on menu boards. “This year will mark four years since we committed to removing 20% of calories per serving by 2025,” she said.

Pizza Express, Wagamama and Nando’s said they already published calorie information on their websites and would start printing information on their menus in April. Nando’s said the April deadline was “not a huge milestone for us because we’ve always tried to be transparent about our calorie information”.

Wetherspoon said it had included calorie information on menus since 2012 and was not going to amend them. A spokesman said the pub chain wanted customers to be able to make informed decisions and was “in no way preaching to customers – simply giving them the information not available in other pubs”.

Calorie labelling was introduced in 2018 in America, and although a study last year of 59 restaurant chains found that there was no change to the average calorie count on menus, new dishes introduced after 2018 did have lower average calorie count.

Similarly, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL), introduced here in 2018, taxes the most sugary soft drinks at 24 pence per litre, and a study by Cambridge’s Centre for Diet and Activity Research found that it had led to an average reduction of about 30g of sugar per household per week.

However, Stuart Flint, an associate professor of the psychology of obesity at Leeds University and a director of Obesity UK, which supports overweight people, was dismissive:  “Who is consuming less sugar?” he asked. “There’s no data that says that children with obesity, or even people living with obesity are consuming less sugar.“The reality is that we’ve had 14 policies over the last 20 years related to obesity, and it hasn’t decreased, it’s increased. The reason is that most of those [policies] are focused on individual changing. Obesity is very complex. If it was as simple as eating less, people wouldn’t gain weight to the extent we have at the moment, and people would be able to lose weight more easily.”

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