Spoiler alert for calorie labels

Adding calorie counts to menus will make eating out more regulated, more systematic, and just a tad more miserable, says Sara Petersson.

Today over 60% of the UK population is overweight or obese. These are worrying statistics. Perhaps in a utopian world (where all food comes out of a single cookie cutter and everyone makes “good” life choices), a policy on calorie labelling in menus, recently suggested by the prime minister Theresa May, could successfully lessen this problem. Then again, maybe not, because although recent research (published here and here) suggests that calorie labelling could reduce energy consumption, this evidence is suggestive rather than definitive.

Today, when convenience is key, and dining out is increasingly replacing home-cooked meals, it is important to shed light on what we eat when we’re “out and about”. Not only this, but consumers demand more transparency around the food, and calorie labeling responds to this trend. However, is this enough to make this policy worthy of our time and money? I don’t believe so.

For a start, the UK food sector is not ready for this policy. Though current evidence on calorie labelling and consumption is encouraging for furthering research in the area, this is not enough to support the implementation of the policy today. Not only this, but for the strategy to see success, the UK would have to regulate other areas, such as consistency of portion sizes and recipes, first. A recent study at Euromonitor International shows that within the UK retail sector portions suggested by manufacturers on food packaging can differ by nearly 100%, within a single food category. For example, one chilled pizza brand suggests that a portion is 120g, while another claims it’s 234g. Both contain around 250kcal/100g.

This problem does not stop at retail. Preliminary research commissioned by Aberdeen City Council shows that within a single year a portion of fish and chips bought at the same shop, on two separate occasions, ranged from around 200 to nearly 400 grams. So I ask, what is the point of calorie labels if they don’t reflect what’s on our plate?

My second reservation is that people aren’t ready for this policy, either: indeed, calorie labelling on menus encourages unhealthy relationships with food. Food should never be judged as good or bad and certainly not based on the calories it contains. Not to mention, focusing on calories can induce anxiety, stress, and promote disordered eating behaviors. Research increasingly shows that the effect food has on our psychological wellbeing, not only determines our overall health, but is also part of an inevitable feedback loop for future eating behaviours. A policy such as this promotes judgment around weight and stigma around food choices. More importantly, we must consider whether this regulation would apply to children’s menus. If so, is calorie counting, something we want to imprint on our kids’ future decisions around food? This sounds like a recipe for disaster.

 For calorie labelling on menus to work at reducing obesity, the character of dining out would have to change completely; it would have to become more regulated, more systematic, and just a tad more miserable. Food is fuel, yes, but food also provides pleasure, and is a cultural clay that brings people together. The UK’s strategies against obesity are restrictive, and encourage categorising food on the good and bad spectrum. In a country as progressive as the UK, we must adopt policies that have been proven to work, and ones that encourage healthy and nutritious choices, not restrict allegedly bad ones. In a recent article for Footprint, David Burrows suggested that “calorie labels may be a waste of time”. But beyond that, they may also be a trigger for unhealthy relationships with food for future generations.

Sara Petersson is food and nutrition senior analyst at Euromonitor International and an accredited nutritionist.

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