Calories prove to be a tough pledge

27 September 2012
Calories prove to be a tough pledge

In the first of a four-part series analysing the Responsibility Deal pledges, Siobhan O'Neill examines the uptake of calorie labelling and reduction and asks some of those that signed up how they made it happen

Whether you're a pub, a bar, a hotel, a restaurant or a contract caterer, when you look at your menu, could you see a way to reduce the calories that your customers consume? Would you want to? And more than that, would you be prepared to show them how many calories are in their steak and chips or tiramisu?

For many in the industry these are hard questions to answer, but the Department of Health is hoping more operators make a pledge to address it as part of the Public Health Responsibility Deal.

Two pledges relate to calories within the food section of the deal. One asks caterers to add calorific values to their menus, the other is a collective pledge that challenges the population as a whole to reduce their calorie consumption by five billion calories per day, and asks the food service industry to help them do it.

Of all the food pledges in the deal these ones - for various reasons - have seen the lowest uptake. Asking people to reformulate dishes they know to be popular with customers, or to publish the calorie content right alongside that burger is a big ask. But many companies have pledged to do so, and they are clear in their commitment that it's the right thing to do.

"It's a form of respect for the customer," says Alexis Gauthier, chef-patron of Gauthier Soho, the first and only Michelin-starred restaurant to publish calories on the menu. "In the past you used to go to restaurants and there would be a menu and no prices. This is just the same; knowing the calories as knowing the price. It's evolution."

Balanced choices

Chris Wells, new product development and buying director at Pizza Hut, agrees. "When you ask customers whether they want more information they say yes," he says. "It helps people make balanced choices."

Pizza Hut has offered full nutrition information online for several years, and it has included calories on menus for the past 12 months. Doing so has encouraged it to reconsider the choices available to its customers, and develop new products such as the 500 calorie Pizzetta pizza.

JD Wetherspoon is the only hotel and pub company to have signed up to the calorie reduction pledge and despite knowing that its customers enjoy the favourite menu items in their droves, has taken steps to reduce calories without compromising on flavour. By taking 138 calories out of the chicken tikka masala, which sells at 18,000 per week, Wetherspoon's has removed nearly 2.5 million calories that were consumed weekly by customers.

"As well as looking at the calories in existing dishes, which we've done with several meals across the menu, we've also tried to develop new healthy dishes and also to provide some healthier eating options," says senior food development manager Jameson Robinson.

"What we didn't want to do is tackle the calories issue by addressing portion size. Instead we're trying to offer healthier options like salmon, or being able to offer a salad instead of chips with a sandwich."

Informed decision

Customer feedback has been positive and Wetherspoon's feels confident enough that from mid-October it too will be publishing calories on the menus. "We did a lot of testing and trialling of calories on the menu to see what the impact was, and we believe it's the right thing to do to put calories on every dish," says Robinson. "We give people the information so they can make an informed decision, and steer people towards the lower calorie and healthier dishes."

Gauthier, meanwhile, continues to serve 25,000 annual customers who are not put off by his calories. "We haven't compromised the way we cook. I am selling a product I believe in and I'm classically trained in French ways. I love finishing my meat with brown butter or adding some double cream in the reduction of the fish, so that hasn't changed. The only thing that's changed is I am not blind any more - I can see," he says.

The Pledges

Out-of-home calorie labelling "We will provide calorie information for food and non-alcoholic drink for our customers in out-of-home settings from 1 September 2011 in accordance with the principles for calorie labelling agreed by the Responsibility Deal."

Calorie reduction "Recognising that the Call to Action on Obesity in England set out the importance of action on obesity, and issued a challenge to the population to reduce its total calorie consumption by five billion calories a day, we will support and enable our customers to eat and drink fewer calories through actions such as product/menu reformulation, reviewing portion sizes, education and information, and actions to shift the marketing mix towards lower-calorie options. We will monitor and report on our actions on an annual basis."

Collating calorie information over the intranet

Contract caterer Bartlett Mitchell has developed an intranet system that enables the collation of calorific and other nutritional information on individual recipes for sharing with customers. It has committed to share selective calorific information by the end of 2012.

"Our focus has been on creating a background system that will enable our managers and chefs to use centrally provided core recipes and give them the ability to input their own recipes and the system will give them the indicative calorie information for a portion of that dish," explains quality standards mentor Sally Grimes.

"We are on target with the development of the system but it is an enormous task, and not without its challenges. As a multi-site operation running a big menu that changes daily, the task is enormous."

Calorie counting test kitchen

Pizza Hut menu
Pizza Hut menu
To determine calorie counts, Pizza Hut used a test kitchen to cook batches of each kind of pizza, making them exactly to specification and sending them off for analysis. Nowadays restaurants can do this using pre-published data via McCance and Widdowson.

"It's an equally valid route because when your guys are making them on a Friday night they're not using scales, so the calories are indicative rather than precise," says product development and buying director Chris Wells.

As well as the calories, the chain puts the Guideline Daily Amount on the back of menus. But the biggest obstacle was how to label calories clearly. With so many different kinds of pizza and topping it is a complex procedure.

"It was absolutely what our customers wanted us to do, so I think it will gain momentum as people see it not damaging businesses," Wells adds. "Those people who have led the way and blazed a trail have not suffered as a result."

Seven steps to committing to the pledge

â- Tailor the way you derive the calories to suit your budget. It can be done by calculation rather than analysis. Computer programs are available to help you.

â- Consider what information you want to share with your customers - just calories or dietary info, too?

â- People don't need to know to the nearest calorie, they want to know indicatively where their choices are

â- How will you share the information with customers - does it impact on menu design?

â- Make sure you give people a range of balanced choices on the menu.

â- Future-proof your solution as far as possible - what might you need to communicate in five years' time?

Sponsor's comments

Tracey Rogers
Tracey Rogers
Tracey Rogers, managing director of Unilever Food Solutions

There have been mixed reactions to calorie labelling. Despite a declining desire to see calories on menus, 31% of consumers state that the provision of calorie information would influence their meal choice. Although it's up to the consumer to decide whether or not to use the information presented, chefs can still play a key role by helping to "nudge" consumers into eating more healthily.

We know that if every chef saved just 24 calories per dish, it would significantly contribute to the Government's "five billion calories a day" target. Linking with our Responsibility Deal pledge to make it easier for consumers to eat fewer calories, this summer we drove our converted ambulance, "Ambu-lunch", across England to show catering students the small changes that can be made to a dish, to reduce calories without impacting taste.

To inspire chefs, we've developed an online interactive Calorie Calculator ( ) as well as a range of "500 calories or less" recipes with clear Guideline Daily Amount information.

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