Information, Information, Information

AS The Nation gets chubbier, more and more companies are pledging to provide facts about how (un)healthy their food is. But do diners need or want them?


Albert Einstein once said that “the devil has put a penalty on all things we enjoy in life. Either we suffer in health or we suffer in soul or we get fat.”


As the national waistline expands, healthier food that doesn’t compromise on taste is becoming the Holy Grail of 21st-century catering. Those signing up to the Public Health Responsibility Deal have to cut salt, fat and sugar from foods and recipes without turning customers off. What’s more, they need to show diners just how (un)healthy their meals are with calorie labels on the menus. Many believe this is the right way to go and have backed the government’s stance and signed up to the responsibility deal’s pledges.


This month, Morrisons will be rolling out a new menu across all its staff canteens. The new recipes, designed in collaboration with Unilever Food Solutions, include new guidance for cooks – adding salt, for instance, is not recommended. Calories will also be displayed at the point of choice which will, says Morrisons, “help our colleagues make informed choices about what they eat”.


Taking responsibility for your staff is one thing, but do consumers really want to be bombarded with information when they eat out? Do families want to see big numbers alongside a McDonald’s Happy Meal on their day out? Do office workers want to be faced with a calorie count when they rush to pick up a quick Subway sandwich on their five-minute lunchbreak? And, perhaps most of all, do diners at a restaurant want to feel guilty when they open the menu? The answer, according to a new study by Allegra Strategies, is no. Consumers want to eat healthily when they dine out, but they don’t see calorie labelling as something that would influence what they choose.


The “Eating Out in the UK 2012” report found that less than a third of consumers (31%) would be influenced by a calorie count when eating out. Instead, they look at ingredients, cooking technique and the portion size. In fact, calorie labelling falls  way down the list of the indicators people use to choose healthier food. So one might ask: what’s the point?


The issue here is timing and consistency. Calorie labels on food, other than that bought at the supermarket, are a relatively new concept. Forty-one companies have signed the relevant pledge in the responsibility deal, but it will take time before such labels become ubiquitous (if ever, given that this is a voluntary initiative).


As Phil Hooper, the Sodexo corporate affairs director, told FoodserviceFootprint. com on the first birthday of the responsibility deal in March: “It’s a large- scale voluntary initiative, and as with any new initiative, sufficient time is required before we can start identifying key results and successes.”


It would be premature for calorie labels to come unstuck on the back of one report. “With one in six meals eaten out, consumers need to have the same level of information they would have when buying food in-store,” says a Department of Health spokeswoman on reviewing the Allegra findings. “There are currently 41 companies signed up to our responsibility deal pledge to display out-of-home calorie information. And as more companies sign up and post information, calorie displays in restaurants will become more the norm.”


This is key: the norm. Look at the struggles that carbon labels are facing. Tesco, a huge supporter of the concept, invested massive amounts of time and money in a bid to label all of its 70,000 products, only to drop the project this year. Its climate change director blamed other retailers: “We expected that other retailers would move quickly to do it as well, giving it critical mass, but that hasn’t happened.”


Calorie labelling will go a similar way unless the labels become ubiquitous and, critically, there is education about what they represent. In spite of all the regulatory fuss around food labelling, many consumers still don’t know what to do with the information they are confronted with.


Unilever Food Solutions, in its latest “World Menu Report”, published in July, found that lack of knowledge about RDAs (recommended daily allowances) is “a clear barrier” when choosing healthier options out of home. Globally, a very high proportion of respondents were unable to identify the recommended daily calorie intake for men and women – what UFS has called the “nutritional knowledge gap”.


Intriguingly, the report also found that cost, taste and satisfaction were stopping them choosing healthier options. They wanted to eat healthier, the report concluded, but only “slightly”.


Whether calorie labels can provide this nudge, it’s hard to say. Time, as Sodexo’s Hooper has said, will tell. But what both the Allegra and UFS reports show is that consumers are beginning to think about what they eat out of home. They don’t want menu overhauls or to be faced with only healthy options, but there is a growing expectation for chefs to provide a higher standard and range of healthy meals.


“Eating out should still be a treat for consumers when they want it to be and we don’t want to change this,” says Tracey Rogers, the Unilever Food Solutions managing director. “Chefs have a lot of influence upon consumers’ diets, so it’s important that they understand their position and use their skills to add healthier twists to our favourite dishes.”


Progress has already begun, with consumers having noticed changes in restaurants since the introduction of the responsibility deal in March 2011. Allegra found that the number who have observed that not enough healthy options are available has fallen from 47% to 42%. They also weren’t completely turned off by the idea of calorie labelling.


As one respondent remarked: “I think calorie counts displayed on menus is going too far. Eating out is a treat to be enjoyed. However, I do think restaurants have a responsibility to have such information, as well as salt, fat and sugar level and ingredients. All this information should be available on the website so that the consumer can check if they wish to, either before or after their dining experience.”