Is it time for nutritional information on menus?

17 February 2011 by
Is it time for nutritional information on menus?

Pressure is mounting on operators to provide more nutritional detail on menus, both from consumers and the Government. But serious concerns remain over the practicalities of such a proposal. Janie Stamford reports

As consumers increasingly look to restaurants, pubs, cafés and caterers to provide more information on the food they are eating, the pressure is on operators to provide more nutritional detail on menus. And with the Government set to put pressure on operators to sign up to a voluntary scheme, businesses are bracing themselves for costly calorie counting.

A report by Unilever Foodsolutions that questioned 3,500 people who eat out at least once a week found that 73% of consumers want to know more about what is in their food when eating out. The World Menu Report also revealed that 61% of diners prefer to eat in places that are transparent about the ingredients they use and 59% said that being informed of nutritional information would influence their choice of establishment. The majority (75%) said health was the reason.

With a backdrop of changing consumer habits and rising obesity rates, the Government has a compelling argument if it is minded to act. For the time being any changes are likely to be voluntary, but with the health secretary Andrew Lansley expected to introduce a voluntary food labelling scheme imminently, the changes may precede legislation.

But serious concerns remain over the practicalities of such a proposal. Richard Firth, Unilever channel marketing director, says that while the industry must confront the issue, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. "We need to work together to meet both commercial and operational criteria but doing nothing is not an option," he adds. "BBC MasterChef website"" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">MasterChefpresenter and restaurateur John Torode and CH&Co's consultant nutritionist Amanda Ursell joined Unilever and other industry figures to debate the issue last week.

Operators shouldn't confuse the needs of their customers with their own passions, advises entrepreneur and co-judge of Raymond Blanc's The Restaurant TV show, Sarah Willingham. She suggests that restaurant chains and large brands, where menus are standardised, are best placed to provide additional nutritional information.

"The onus should be on high street brands. To ask this generation of chefs and restaurateurs to change is unrealistic," she says.

Torode says there is a significant need for training before broad-brush nutritional analysis can take place.

what People think

61% Would prefer to eat at restaurants that are transparent about the ingredients they use in food
43% Number of people that want to know about the fat content
59% Knowing the nutritional content of meals will influence the choices they make when eating out
39% Number of people that want to know how much salt is in their food
31% Number of people that want to know how many calories are in their food
58% Of respondents believe that operators should take the lead in ensuring more transparency about ingredients

what the industry thinks

Caterer asked operators from all sectors if they would sign up to a voluntary menu labelling scheme, and if they thought operators should be tasked with taking responsibility for the health of the nation

Malcolm John, owner-director, Malcolm John Restaurants

Malcolm John
Malcolm John
"I think customers should take responsibility for themselves; I wouldn't sign up. Mine is an ever-evolving menu and you can't limit the creativity of a chef. The customer will end up paying for it because operators will have to pass on the cost.

"There are other ways to make menus more appealing to health-conscious consumers. I've reduced the amount of salt used in some of my menus and I'm planning to introduce a selection of dishes that are completely salt-free."

Erik Castenskiold, director of corporate affairs, Mitchells & Butlers "We will consider all the proposals when they are fully formulated but it is important to note that on average our customers enjoy a meal with us once every few months, meaning it is often a treat rather than an everyday meal. In these circumstances there can be less of a demand for nutritional information.

"We were one of the first pub companies to publish information about the calorie content of dishes on our brand websites and we aim to provide nutritional information online for all of our brands by the end of 2011."

John Torode, restaurateur and TV presenter "The idea of chefs calculating calories is not going to happen. Training is needed before operators can take this responsibility."

Jonathan Doughty, chairman of FCSI and group managing director of Coverpoint Consultancy "Food service is a social glue that binds people together when they are celebrating, doing business, enjoying each other's company and therefore by its very nature, it is unlikely that messages on nutrition are going to get through to people in a significant way."

Sarah Willingham, restaurateur

Sarah Willingham
Sarah Willingham
"Independent restaurants aren't going to do this and would their customers even want it? Restaurant chains and large brands, where menus are standardised, are in a position to give further nutritional information. The onus should be on high street brands. To ask this generation of chefs and restaurateurs to change is unrealistic."

Tracey Rogers, managing director, Unilever Food Solutions "We believe that chefs and operators have the power to help change the health of the nation."

Bill Toner, non-executive chairman, Host

"It would be impossible to put all the ‘small print' found on prepared food bought in a supermarket on to a menu. The work and training involved to undertake something this complex, before even trying to work out the cost, is mind-boggling."

Peter Joyner, food development director, Elior "We do it in certain sites where clients demand it, but to do it across the whole estate would be a nightmare. We concentrate more on making sure we've got a good selection of healthy food options because I think such detailed information is meaningless to most people."

QUICK QUIZ: what has the most calories?

â-Marks & Spencer BLT sandwich
â-Pizza Hut Pepperoni Feast pizza (individual portion)
â-Fish& Chips
â-KFC Chicken Fillet Burger
â-Burger King Whopper
â-McDonald's Big Mac
â-Subway 6″ Chicken & Bacon Ranch & Sweet Onion Sauce

(Scroll down for the answers)

What menu labelling will mean to you

Jonathan Doughty, chairman of the Foodservice Consultants Society International, explains how menu labelling would work for operators who sign up to the Government's voluntary scheme

What might operators that sign up be expected to do? Carry out their own nutritional analysis as a minimum on all dishes. This assumes that they have standard recipes in the first place.

Will it be similar to nutritional labelling in food manufacturing? It will be a lot more complex and harder to get right. The processes used in manufacturing food are very tightly controlled, with detailed and specific ingredients, measures and quantities, and stringent cooking processes. Restaurant businesses, where "cooking" takes place in the truest sense, are those that will find it hardest to achieve this. They rely on chefs and their judgement, which will inevitably mean that variations will occur.

What are the pitfalls? A slightly larger portion, more sauce on a dish, extra butter or a larger addition of alcohol will all "throw out" the carefully prescribed ingredients in the theoretical recipe. Nutritional laboratories will be able to determine the make up of food, from the ingredients and cooking processes, but the confidence that both consumers and management have in this will be dependent on the specifications and training that exists in the units.

What are the alternatives? A typical nutritional value would be more easily implemented, where the caterer provides information on the fat or salt per 100g so that the portion sizes are less critical to the information. But that in some ways misses the point as most things are good for you if eaten in small quantities!

Has the Government investigated food labelling? The Food Standards Agency ran a pilot scheme with 19 operators in 2009. However this demonstrates the lack of understanding of the food service industry to be asking for this. Unless we are prepared to use only processed or pre-portioned foods, to weigh the goods as they are delivered to plate and to spend an awful lot of time and money on nutritional analysis, I don't see how this is going to work.


Twitter users respond…

@JanieStamford Shld caterers/restaurants opt to add nutritional info to menus so consumers can make informed choices about what they eat? Wld you sign up?

@sagray16 Don't agree with calories being put on food especially in schools. Think this is very dangerous for those with eating disorders

@the_a_stevenson Cost of analysis would have to be passed onto customers. McDonalds publish nutrition info, but does anyone ever look?

@esenses absolutely not, my food evolves constantly and want be at the stove and not a feckin desk with a calculator

@granthawthorne No & no. As adults they should learn to use their F%£ing brains a little & adopt a ‘live to eat' philosophy. 2 much legisl

@mriemenschneidr if u have the same menu for months & months then yes and they have enough resources to accomplish those requests

@jackieschneider looking for transparency in labelling ingredients not marketing! Misleading info not helpful

Quiz Answers
Pizza Hut Pepperoni Feast Pizza 820Kcal
Burger King Whopper 631Kcal
Fish & Chips 595Kcal
Marks & Spencer BLT Sandwich 540Kcal
Subway 6″ Chicken & Bacon 527Kcal
McDonald's Big Mac 490Kcal
Chicken tikka masala 450Kcal
KFC Chicken Fillet Burger 442Kcal
** source: Allegra Research*

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