Monday, 19 January 2009

Calorie controlled menus

Restaurants and takeaways to print calorie content on menus in bid to curb unhealthy eating

Fast food and sandwich chains will begin displaying the calorie content of their menus by the summer in an effort to help customers fight the flab and switch to healthier options....

.....The calorie count scheme proposed by the Government's Food Standards Agency mirrors a compulsory regime adopted in New York last year. This has led to an average reduction of 50-100 calories for each order placed.....

....However, the plan faces opposition from the British Hospitality Association amid claims it will add to business costs and threaten jobs at a time when small food outlets are struggling for survival.

Where to start?

The first sentence implies that the healthiness of foods can be measured by the amount of calories. To a certain extent, yes, we need calories, and therefore food which provides calories, rather than not, is desirable. But obviously, they are associating the healthiness of food with less calories, rather than more. Presumably the lowest calorie option is thought to be the healthiest option, regardless of the content. So, supposedly, one apple is healthier than two apples, one grape is healthier than a bunch of grapes and boiled water is healthier than soup.

The second part - about the scheme resulting in a reduction in calories per order placed - what does that mean, on its own? Did people go for "healthier" options, or choose less "healthy" but lower calorie options? Did the lower calorie intake at this meal mean a lower calorie intake over the day, the week, the month, the year? How was the people's health affected? Did they lose weight? Because, lets face it, if there was no measurable difference in health and/or weight, then what's the point?

Now the last bit, about the problems for small businesses. There's a list of businesses which are signing up, and they are big companies like Pizza Hut who serve pretty much exactly the same food, cooked in exactly the same way, in the same portions in all their restaurants. So it's feasible, maybe, that they could give an idea of the calorie count of each of their dishes. MacDonalds already do this, I think. I remember the paper things they put in the trays used to have the calorie count of their foods on them. But for a chef in a small restaurant, would it be so easy? I suppose you could make one portion of the dish, measuring ingredients carefully, and take it to a lab to have the calorie count tested. Or you could carefully weigh and measure all the ingredients and count their calories. But that wouldn't be terribly accurate, because often the calorie count will change during cooking (oil drains off or is not absorbed). And in both cases, you'd have to make sure that you continued to accurately measure all the ingredients each time somebody ordered a dish. No dashes of that, or knobs of this, or handfuls of the other. And your ingredients would have to be standard - if a steak was half an ounce overweight, you'd have to cut that extra half ounce off, and presumably throw it away, unless you had invented and measured a calorie controlled recipe for small pieces of steak. It sounds like a nightmare to me.

But finally, eating out isn't just about calorie intake. We could get plenty of calories cheaper at home. I eat out to be sociable, to mark occasions and for the pleasure of a meal which I haven't cooked myself and don't have to wash up after. I probably do eat a bit more when I eat out than I would at a normal meal - there's plenty of time to eat, it's slow and enjoyable, I'm not tired and flustered from cooking, and the food, hopefully, is delicious. It's a sensual pleasure, and one that I'm paying money for. I don't want to be expected to choose my food according to the calorie count.

And that's what will happen, won't it? We'll maybe be able to ignore the calorie count, but I bet that when we're out with a group of people, some are going to notice whether the fat person chooses a low or high calorie option, and perhaps make some judgment about them because of that.


  1. But for a chef in a small restaurant, would it be so easy?

    Exactly!!!!! I have no idea why some people even believe that it's possible to know the calorie count of a self-made meal. What if you spilled something? What if you made a measuring mistake? What if you didn't finish it, how are you supposed to know how many calories you left out? Just thinking about it in theory gives me a headache.

    Also, not only is one apple "better" than two apples ... each apple in the entire world is different.

  2. Yes, and it also bothers me that restaurants might be encouraged to use less tasty ingredients. Adding extra water to a recipe, for instance, is going to lower the calorie count by weight, and air is going to lower it by volume. Of course, what some might be tempted to do is to offer smaller portions, which will have more attractive lower calorie counts, but charge the same price.


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