Oblivious Irish Eating: Calories on Menus

In 2012, Minister for Health Dr. James Reilly promised legislation would be brought in to include calorie information on restaurant menus. He has not kept this promise and it remains voluntary for restaurants to offer this service or, more usually, not.

Calorie menu labelling is a relatively new concept, and as such, evidence is still being analysed on the impact that this approach has on eating habits. Calorie menu labelling has the most impact on those who engage in it. Studies show that individuals who use calorie menu labelling purchase fewer calories.

A large study in 2011 by Dumanovsky reported on consumers who used the calorie information provided. The result was that 15% purchased 106 fewer calories on average compared to the 85% of consumers who didn’t use the information.

Photo captured by Edward Stojakovic [Flickr]

Another study by Bollinger in 2010 showed that, on average, 6% fewer calories were purchased by consumers in a coffee chain, though a reduction of up to 26% less calories was reported for some consumers. Very importantly, this reduction was sustained over the 10 month period of this particular study.

Paulette O’Reilly of the health department said, “Minister Reilly has indicated that he is still very much in favour that the programme of putting calories on menus in Ireland be introduced, but on a voluntary basis at first. The Minister requested the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) to carry out a national consultation, which found that over 95% of consumers in Ireland want calories on menus. Nevertheless, if a voluntary approach fails to make the desired impact then forced legislation will be introduced. The consultation showed that 92% of consumers and 88% of health professionals supported a mandatory approach for large food service businesses although only 58% of food businesses would support that approach.”

Photo captured by Department of Health [Flickr]

The principal function of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland aims to ensure that food complies with legal requirements, or where appropriate with recognised codes of good practice.

Jane Ryder, a spokesperson of the FSAI, says, “There is no single approach which can successfully address the obesity crisis that plagues Ireland today. It is important to recognise that a small but continually positive change in the eating behaviours of a large number of individuals can have a huge effect on the obesity crisis; calorie menu labelling offers this potential.”

Apart from the minority of consumers who use the calorie menu information with immediate effect on their food purchases, there are other positive effects, which can be expected to increase the health benefits of food sold. These effects include consumer demand for smaller and more appropriate portion sizes for meals and snacks; and for healthier foods and beverages. Without the drive of consumer demand, food service businesses could not initiate these changes without risking a loss of revenue.

The current food environment is represented by excesses of energy-dense foods. Such foods strongly appeal to people’s innate preferences for sweet, salty and high-fat tastes. Such taste preferences, combined with the human tendency to eat when food is available and to eat more when more food is readily available, increases the risk of being overweight or obesity.

Approaches to change this environment are needed to protect the population against foods and eating patterns that add to these problems. There is no single approach which can successfully address the obesity epidemic – a varied approach involving all levels of society is required. Recent data from the FSAI shows that 18-64 year olds consume 24% of their total energy from food and drink outside the home. As such, the food service sector can play a very positive role in promoting public health. Calorie menu labelling is one approach to addressing the obesity crisis which benefits consumers who use the calorie information provided.

On the matter of forced legislation, Zack Gallagher of the Irish Food Guide, said, “I think the cost of implementing it is something restaurants have been thinking about for a while anyway. However it is quite a lot of work to find out the calorie count of a whole menu. The government made an announcement to make it mandatory before they thought about the implications; they should concentrate on a campaign that encourages restaurants to modify their menus rather than enforcing it.”

The Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) agrees. They feel that implementing forced legislation will cost the industry €110 million.  The planned changes to put calories onto menus have not been supported by owners of restaurants, who are currently finding it a struggle to get money from the banks. They won’t be able to afford the estimated €5,000 it will cost to give details of calories on their menus.  This would be a stretch for struggling independent businesses.

Chief Executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, Adrian Cummins, says that only a small amount of restaurants have decided to change their menus to include calorie counts. He says, “Any chef will tell you that menus in restaurants can vary every few days and therefore calorie counting would be highly inaccurate anyway. A common sense approach to healthy eating is what is needed in our society. Restaurants are not the cause of Ireland’s weight problems. People are rarely eating out in these bleak times. It’s a rare treat for them, and the last thing they want is to be made to feel guilty or conscious of enjoying a meal.”

Photo captured by eyeliam [Flickr]

The RAI have proposed that restaurants should include a ‘healthy option’ on menus and offer a universal ‘healthy options’ symbol that would help to curb the obesity problem we are faced with, while also being an inexpensive solution for those eating out.

Seeing as Minister James Reilly hasn’t forced legislation on businesses yet, it doesn’t seem likely that it is going to happen straight away. Although it may have some adverse effects on businesses cost-wise, calorie information on menus is what consumers want and that needs to be addressed by both food establishments and James Reilly himself.


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