Foodservice businesses in Scotland could soon have to show calorie contents on their menus as the government’s advisors announced a raft of measures to make food eaten out of home (OOH) healthier.
The recommendations – put forward in a public meeting of the Food Standards Scotland (FSS) board last week and backed by science and “strong public support” – also include a new code of practice for children’s menus and a revision of planning rules to reduce the number of businesses that are “cynically” targeting children with unhealthy snacks in order to boost their profits.
FSS also called for “immediate action” from the OOH sector to reduce calories – and then prove it was making progress. Portion sizes are far too big compared to retail with significant variations in calorie content – from 220 to 1,440 calories for a portion of chips, for example. Indeed, consumer research conducted as part of the OOH review showed that people were “shocked” when presented with the calorie content of certain dishes. Many also underestimated the calories in popular takeaway meals.
“With two out of three people either overweight or obese in Scotland and a sharp increase in the volume of takeaways being ordered, action is needed to transform the current food environment for our health,” said FSS chair Ross Finnie.
The message from FSS to government is that voluntary action led by industry hasn’t worked. Voluntary calorie labelling, for example, has been available since 2011, but only around one in four UK OOH businesses provide this information.
“Industry has had plenty of time to adapt, and it hasn’t,” FSS noted. “Therefore, we now need stronger action to ensure that providing calorie information OOH is the norm. For this reason, we believe mandatory calorie labelling is now necessary.”
There also needs to be a new voluntary standard for the provision of full nutritional information for use online and on printed materials.
Willie Macleod, UKHospitality executive director for Scotland, defended the industry’s record on healthy eating and transparency. He said “customers are now better informed than they have ever been” and mandatory labelling would be a “retrograde step”.
Mandatory labelling of calories would include takeaway menus and home delivery services. Introduction of the new controversial measure, should the government agree with its advisors at FSS, would need to consider the costs and a period of preparation for businesses. Analysis of the cost savings in relation to health and the wider society should also be conducted.
Lorraine Tulloch, programme lead of Obesity Action Scotland, said the new measures will ensure consumers are fully informed about what they are buying and that the food industry improve its offering. “However, a lot of these measures rely on voluntary action by food premises and do not address marketing and promotion of unhealthy products out of home,” she added.
Indeed, there are no mandatory targets for calorie reduction in the proposals. However, FSS has called on ministers to revise the National Planning Framework in Scotland to provide planning policies that address the impact of the OOH food environment on public health. FSS found that “businesses around schools were often seen as cynically tailoring unhealthy food to young people and providing easy access to sugary drinks and crisps in the knowledge they have a profitable market in school age teens”.
A new code of practice for OOH children’s menus is also needed, but action to improve what’s currently available should begin “immediately”. FSS analysed online information on children’s menus from 40 outlets, and found that children’s meal deals that included desserts and sugary drinks were common. Fewer than half the mail meal options included vegetables as standard.
FSS said the public sector should lead the way in healthy food eaten OOH, recommending a mandatory standard for healthier food in the public sector. “The inclusion of calorie labelling, reformulation, calorie reduction and improvements to the food served to children, should be encompassed within this standard.”