Research from New York, where calorie labelling in fast-food restaurants has been compulsory since 2008, has found that just one in six diners have altered their eating habits because of calorie information.
But despite the lukewarm response uncovered by the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene survey, operators in the UK are being urged not to ignore the potential benefits of listing calorie information on menus.
Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of healthy-eating fast-food chain Leon, said he was unsurprised by the results. "I don't think any amount of labelling will control obesity," he said. "If I want to go out for a burger, I go out for a burger. Calories is a very antiquated way of looking at healthy eating. What will control obesity is education."
However, Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, viewed the New York statistics as encouraging. "If nobody was taking any notice it would be pointless," he said. "But you may well see 16% as progress. It is quite reasonable to say that if that is a growing percentage, it is worth doing."
Mid-market chain the Real Greek said it had seen an effect since introducing calorie information on menus in 2009. "We immediately noticed that it was making a difference to peoples' choices, with a definite shift in popularity in favour of the lower calorie dishes," said Christos Karatzenis, operations manager at the group. "Our diners don't have to take notice of the calorie count; it isn't so blatantly displayed on the menus that you couldn't ignore it if you wanted to."
Other positive signs include a consumer survey conducted by the Mystery Dining Company, which found that 64% of consumers thought that food outlets should disclose calorie information on menus - up from 58% 12 months earlier. However, 39% said they would like the option of ordering from a menu without such information.
Value for money
Steven Pike, director at the Mystery Dining Company, said: "Value for money is generally perceived as the most important thing for consumers when they are eating out. I think that if this is combined with people being more conscientious about their menu choices, operators will need to look at how their menus are structured and the types of dishes that are on offer."
However, restaurateurs remain reluctant to put calorie information on menus. Silla Bjerrum, co-founder of Feng Sushi, has listed dishes calories online, but is in two minds whether to sign up to the Responsibility Deal. She said: "All the emphasis is on calorie counting, which is a very simplified view of healthy eating."
Though the tide is turning. Last month, Alexis Gauthier, chef-patron at London's Gauthier Soho, became one of the most high-profile chefs to put calorie information on his menu. "In this day and age most people dine out a lot more than they used to and it's not always a special treat and people don't always go out to stuff themselves. To be able to dine out as often as you want and understand the impact on your body is really important. Back in the 1980s when menus listing prices were first given to women, it was a big change. I'm convinced this is the future," he said.
Whatever the restaurateur's views, and however extensive the public's use of calorie information, it appears at present unlikely that the UK will follow New York's compulsory regulations of nutritional labelling, a status quo Couchman is keen to maintain. "The Responsibility Deal is a nudge from the government and if the industry is willing to come on board, the government will steer away from legislation. Some point in the future a different government may take a pro-regulatory stance, but we'd certainly be against that."
Do diners want calorie counting?
According to 300 restaurant-going consumers polled by the Mystery Dining Company:
64% thought food outlets should be made to disclose nutritional information
44% said they would choose dishes with fewer calories
18% would order what they want regardless
39% said they would like the option of menus with and without nutritional information
15% would prefer to look online
By Tom Vaughan
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