Burgers, pizzas, salads and desserts all came with a special side dish on Wednesday: a calorie count.
In the government’s latest push to tackle obesity, restaurants, cafes and takeaways across England with more than 250 staff are now required to print meal calorie counts on their menus and websites . So will this new law radically change people’s eating habits? Not likely.
In restaurants visited by The Guardian on Wednesday, some consumers felt the move could be a “nudge in the right direction”, but most said it was unnecessary and would make no difference to what they would choose to eat.
Others, who have struggled with their weight in the past, said they found the numbers hard to see.
“I don’t think it’s necessary,” laughed Nosipno Zithutha before entering Nando’s at Euston station in central London, where the effort was being rolled out alongside food chains across the country non-prepackaged and non-alcoholic beverages.
Zithutha also didn’t think calorie labeling would be effective. “We still have to make our own decisions. If I want to buy KFC and eat something vegetarian or plant-based, I will still go,” she said. “I am responsible for what I put in my body.”
Nando’s, Pizza Express and Wagamama are among the companies that have already posted calorie information online and started printing the information on their menus from Wednesday.
The new law, approved by parliament last year, comes after the coronavirus pandemic shone a spotlight on obesity and the increased risk of dying from Covid. According to government figures, nearly 63% of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity while 40% of children are obese or overweight when they leave primary school. The cost to the NHS is estimated at £6.1billion a year.
Outside a north London branch of Pret a Manger, which started listing the calories of produce before the government rollout, Rose, 27, said the numbers were disheartening. She counts herself among those who watch the calorie count when they’re around, and if a product has more than 600, she won’t have it.
“I’ve struggled with my weight in the past,” she said, and “I really struggle sometimes” to see the calorie count.
When Jeffrey Tan sat down to lunch at an O’Neill’s pub, he said he noticed the calorie count listed next to each item and found it “nice to know” – but it had no bearing on what he chose to eat.
“I still went ahead and chose what I liked best,” confessed Tan, who opted for the sausage and mash, which he said approached 900 calories. “Significantly lower than other pub classics.”
But overall, he said the calorie inclusion was helpful for people with serious health conditions and stricter diets.
The government has said displaying calorie information “could also” encourage companies to offer healthier options, but some experts are skeptical. For Stuart Flint, associate professor of obesity psychology at the University of Leeds and director of the charity Obesity UK, the solution is to restrict the industry.
“Focusing only on calories does not increase awareness. I think we’re taking a step back from what we’ve been doing for five to 10 years,” he said.
“The reality is that there are so many different factors that contribute to obesity,” Flint said, adding that it would be “better to focus on restricting food availability, rather than putting the ’emphasis only on individuals to make choices’.
While fast-food companies such as McDonald’s and KFC have already listed calorie amounts on their menus, Flint said there was no “real evidence base” to understand where the new requirement will impact. , or for whom, or if someone is likely to change their choice because of it.
“It hasn’t made a difference in terms of people going to McDonald’s, so what evidence do we have that it’s going to make a difference?” he said. “At the moment, we don’t.”
Maggie Throup, the Minister for Public Health, said: “It is crucial that we all have access to the information we need to maintain a healthy weight and that starts with knowing how high in calories our food is. We are used to knowing this when we shop at the supermarket, but this is not the case when we eat out or get takeaway.