The view: calorie counting

20/10/2015 - 12:01
Pubs and restaurants are being urged by councils to introduce signs which spell out the calorie content of food and drink in a bid to beat the obesity crisis. Kate Nicholls, chief executive of The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR), gives her take on the issue

Pubs and bars spend a significant amount of time and money ensuring that their customers are presented with all the information to make an informed choice.

Can you identify a few examples of how pubs are doing this?

Heavy investment in website technology to provide detailed nutritional information eg Spirit has calorie information and nutritional info on line for main brands. M&B has menu labelled calorie info in Harvester. Stonegate and Wetherspoon have taken a different route and worked to identify a below 600 calorie segment to their menu. Point is that there are more ways to deliver information to customers in a way that is meaningful and helps them with their decision making if and when they want to find the information out.

Guest experience shows that they are less receptive to calorie information when they are seeing food as experience rather than as fuel. Also, there is a very heavy investment in databases and technology, menu development and product formulation to ensure that nutritional information is accurate, comprehensive and consistent.

Once the up front investment is made to get the calorie info it is relatively easy for QSR and fast food to administer because they deliver a consistent product each time. With different chefs and daily changing menus, this becomes technically more challenging hence the ‘healthier options’ or ‘lighter plates’ or ‘below 600’ can work better for certain restaurants 

You have outlined the concern over the potential cost implications of the widespread introduction of new menu labelling schemes. Can you identify what those cost implications may be?

At the moment the voluntary Responsibility Deal allows operators to work towards these goals in a way which best suits their guests and their operational requirements. To have to display all calories on the menu would impose cost burdens every time you changed the menu and requires the investment in detailed nutritional information.

There are accuracy obligations as noted above which mean you can’t just guess and you don’t have a margin of error – so one chef may put a tablespoon of butter in a sauce, another a teaspoon and it dramatically changes things.

This move is said to be a success in the US, do you think it will take off in the UK? Is it fair to compare the obesity levels between the US and UK?

Ok, firstly, it is a little too early to say what the experience is in the US given that the rule hasn’t taken effect at a federal level yet. Some states have calorie labelling but most don’t and the Federation FDA only agreed the new law in December 2014. It has already had to push back the implementation date on this due to the complexities and difficulties restaurants have faced in getting up to speed with compliance.

It was due to take effect from late June this year and has been pushed back to December 2016. Secondly, it is very selective in which restaurants it applies to – only those with 20 or more sites which are serving substantially the same menu items and the labelling requirements would only apply to standard menu items.

So this is not comparable to what is being proposed by the LGA. What the American experience shows is how very challenging this is and how far from straight forward.

In your opinion, what else do you think the pub sector could be doing to tackle obesity?

We are already engaged in the Responsibility Deal – either get some background on the pledges or point the journo in the direction – and outside of that on initiatives to reduce trans fats, sat fats and to remove a billion calories from the market.

There are some small scale changes pubs and bars are already doing to tackle obesity eg salad dressing and sauces on the side, healthier option menus, swapping full fat milk, mayonnaise and butter for lower fat options as standard. Semi skimmed milk as default in coffee

Is our industry, as a whole, are we doing enough to tackle the issue? Are we taking leadership as a whole?

This is a chicken and egg situation and it will take time to nudge consumers towards healthier eating habits. The trick is to be just ahead of the guest so that we can offer choice and a healthy range of options, bearing in mind that they are looking from an experience and an everyday treat.

Calorie information is still relatively new on pack in supermarkets and in quick serve out of home and customers are now getting used to understanding what it means and applying to their everyday.

In your opinion, is there another way of we could tackle this issue in a cost effective way? Can we show calories in another way in our pubs?

We need to look first at what customers do with the information that we provide and how they use it so that we can look at whether calorie labelling or other healthy eating options are the best way to change behaviour. What we know is guests – and the general public – do not respond well to finger wagging or lecturing

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