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Calorie counts on menus to fight obesity
Fast food should come with calorie warnings, believe health watchdogs. Photograph: Stockbyte/Getty
Leading restaurants and takeaway chains would advise customers how many calories were in every dish on their menus under plans being discussed by ministers and the food industry.
The health secretary, Andrew Lansley, wants the information routinely displayed on menus, tables and counters of burger bars and sandwich shops to reduce obesity. He hopes to encourage people to choose healthier options – and so reduce the estimated £4.5bn annual cost to the NHS of treating patients with diet-related conditions.
“Our aim is to give people the help and advice they need to adopt a healthy lifestyle. I want to make it as easy as possible for them to do that. That’s why we’re working with industry to bring in calorie information on menus,” he said.
“As a nation we are too unhealthy. We cost the NHS billions of pounds a year through bad diet, lack of exercise and poor lifestyle choices.”
Calorie counts on menus would not be mandatory. But Lansley hopes that the voluntary system will be adopted across the industry as part of a new “public health responsibility deal” between Whitehall and large food producers and retailers. An advisory group of health experts, representatives of the food and drinks industry and campaign groups such as the consumer champion Which? has been established to work with the Department of Health to develop ideas to help people lead healthier lives.
Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s are members, as are food giant Unilever, alcohol producer Diageo and the Food and Drink Federation.
Nutrition expert Professor Susan Jebb, a senior adviser to the government on obesity, is also in the group, as is the National Heart Forum and Dame Carol Black, who advises ministers on health and the workplace.
Calorie counts were discussed when the group recently held its first meeting with Lansley, and health ministers Paul Burstow and Anne Milton. Its discussions may also lead to the food industry reducing fat, salt and sugar content. Some food providers such as Wimpy, Subway, Pret A Manger and Costa give nutritional information about products, either in outlets or on their websites.
Lansley’s plan was supported by Dr Lindsey Davies, a member of the Department of Health’s advisory group and president of the Faculty of Public Health, which represents 3,300 specialists. “Having the calorific content displayed would be very helpful. I would hope that this idea would make a difference to the nation’s expanding waistlines,” she said. “If you give people an easy way to see how many calories there are in their food, that’s great. But it has to be done in a way that’s easy to understand.” Asked if the scheme would have an impact, Davies added: “Anything that gives people more information is a good thing.”
But food campaigners last night criticised calorie counts as inadequate. Jackie Schneider of Sustain, a food and farming charity, said that the scheme should be mandatory and include details of the fat, salt and sugar content.
“Our experience of voluntary schemes is that they are less effective,” she said, citing the example of a recent Food Standards Agency pilot programme, that involved 18 companies. Fast-food chains such as KFC, Burger King and Pizza Hut initially joined but then decided not to continue. Pret A Manger is the only one of the 18 to still display the information next to its prepared food.
In the US, President Barack Obama used his controversial health reforms to compel fast-food chains to provide calorie information on their menus from 2011, indicating, for example, that a McDonald’s Big Mac in the US contains more than 500 calories.
Wimpy put calorie counts on menus in its 160 UK outlets in 2008. Clare Starling, its marketing manager, said: “We haven’t noticed any changes in the proportions of burgers we sell compared to salads or baked potatoes. Calorie counts are interesting, but not a decision-changer for the consumer. People want to stick to their favourites.
“On the basis of Wimpy’s experience, I don’t think the government should expect too much to change.”