We are constantly led to believe by government that we are in the midst of an obesity crisis. We’re all getting fatter, our kids are so fat they are going to die before us, so various governments have come up with schemes to encourage us to eat less. Advertisers would have us purchase more, but for some time now there have been restrictions on what can be advertised and at what time of day. So-called junk food advertising is meant to be limited until after the kids have gone to bed! But the UK government wants to take obesity control one step further with the introduction of calorie counts on restaurant menus.
I understand that in certain states in the USA calorie counts on menus already apply to chain restaurants. For the likes of McDonald’s or Taco Bell this is an easy exercise. They have whole departments dedicated to recipe development and standardisation so that the calories of each menu item can be accurately calculated and will not vary store by store.
Currently the UK Government’s proposal is for restaurants with more than 250 employees to include calorie information on their menus. This would seem to apply mostly to chain restaurants again with central menu planning, central purchasing and portion control. But what if it applied to smaller independent restaurants?
There are still some restaurants out there that employ chefs who cook from scratch; creating a dish each time it is ordered from a range of ingredients and cooking from their “heart” rather than from a formula. The first implication is, of course, that the dish will vary each time it is cooked – a bit more cream here, a few extra chips there – so, at best, any calorie count will only be a guide. Can I put on my menu “lots of calories”, “quite a lot of calories” or “not so many calories”?
Surely every customer has enough intelligence to know that if they order a dish with a heavy cream sauce it will contain far more calories than a simply grilled piece of fish! If you live on takeaway burgers and fish and chips you know you are consuming far too many calories and don’t need a label on the menu. The second implication is the cost of having every menu item analysed and what about creating a special for the evening? For the small independent restaurant owner it is a crazy idea
A recent online petition to stop the plan to include calorie counts has now closed. The Government’s response was as follows, “Calorie labelling on menus in the out-of-home sector will ensure people are able to make informed decisions about the food and drink they and their families consume”. In my opinion, I do think that the majority of the British public are already capable of making their own decisions regarding food and drink and do not need further coddling from an over-protective government. Perhaps if the powers that be encouraged more sports and after-school activities for kids we wouldn’t be in this predicament.
What difference do calorie counts on menus make and how does it affect the dining-out experience? A recent study in America found that, based on 1 million people, for the first 5 years of the law coming into effect “healthier menu choices could prevent 14,698 new cases of heart disease (including 1,575 deaths) and 21,522 new type 2 diabetes cases, the study concluded. Healthier menu choices could add 8,749 years of life (in good health).”
The key phrase here is “menu choices” which is surely a decision driven by the consumer and does not necessarily reflect that calorie counts have been put on the menu. We are all capable of making healthier choices but do we need to have it spoon-fed to us by law? When we eat out in a restaurant it is often a time for meeting friends, celebration or just pure escapism.
The pleasure comes from knowing that someone else is doing the cooking, the clearing and the cleaning and gives us an opportunity to forget our daily lives just for a brief moment. If we are suddenly faced with the moral decision of the salad or the steak and sauce followed by the sticky toffee pudding we have suddenly lost the pleasure in going out!