My Two Cents: Counting on Quality, Not on Calories

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February 9, 2015 by Evin

You may have heard about the new Food Safety Authority of Ireland menu scheme to list menu option calories nationwide. Or in the words of the FSAI, “Dr James Reilly, the Minister for Health, is keen to make calorie information available on menus. This will help consumers make healthier choices when buying food outside of the home.” Sounds simple enough, right? Not quite.

Evidently, 95% of Irish surveyed want calorie counts on menus. I don’t. Do you? Were you surveyed? I wasn’t. It feels a bit like one of those teen movies when the mean girl goes up to accept her prom queen crown and you hear the muffled voices of her classmates asking each other, “did you vote for her? I didn’t.”

The FSAI proposal has four main principles, listed below with details. But first, I’ll say my piece. Keep in mind this is just my opinion. I link to case studies, research, and science, but I am NOT an industry expert. I am admittedly biased against the calorie counts on menus because:

1) I love the artisan food experience and worry creative daily menus will be subjected to calorie counting standards, taking away the whimsy that makes them special and sets real restaurants apart from fast food chains (where portions are usually measured and calculated, often pre-portioned at time of ingredient delivery to the kitchen).

2) I moved to Ireland just as the recession was hitting hard and have seen favourite restaurants come and go. The expense of maintaining calorie counts (home economist and lab to test for accurate calorie counts, printing menus,…) might push fledgling businesses further into the red. This is something I’ve seen happen in the short five weeks since VAT MOSS took effect broadly without consideration for minimum earnings thresholds or digital media specification (an ebook with ISBN is taxed the same as a downloaded video game or software program). The data management necessary might be enough to stop a new business before it has a chance. I’m NOT against taxes or government schemes to improve our lives, but I am against the sense that it sometimes feels like we are being painted with the same very broad brush, and information is funnelled to us like children.

3) I believe people are intelligent and want to make a good life for themselves, so listing calorie counts for a specific dish at a specific restaurant is a short-term investment in people. What about education?! Learning about nutrition in general will create a healthier population than just telling them what the fish and chips at this one chipper has in calories. As consumers on every level, both of information and products, we deserve adequate and transparent information to build the necessary tools to make informed decisions in all aspects of our lives. Yes, that sounds passionate yet vague, I know.

So, I’ve laid my opinions out for you. They are just that, opinions. You may disagree, and that’s great because that’s what makes our society great.

Principle 1. Calorie information is provided for all standard food and drink items sold. A ‘standard’ food or drink item is a product that: 1) Is on sale for at least 30 days a year; and 2) Remains the same each time it is made.
Easy enough. So, for a MacDonald’s hamburger, that is straight-forward since it is down to a science with pre-measured burger patties. For a scone, that is also straight-forward since the size is standard and the recipe doesn’t usually change, but then butter and seasonal jam must be listed as options. Now according to these rules, a brunch-only menu item is included since it would be on sale roughly 45 or more Saturdays (or Sundays) a year. But is the wording of “remains the same” considering anything made by-hand will have a small margin of changes each time it is made. In a country where artisan food and daily menus are revered, it is a challenge to maintain accurate calorie counts for food made with love, not scales and beakers. Maybe that last slice of cheesecake of the evening is a little bigger or the birthday cake has an extra scoop of ice cream and chocolate sauce writing. Where do those little thoughtful moments of generosity and extra-ness come in?

Principle 2. Calorie information is displayed clearly and prominently at the ‘Point of Choice’ for the consumer.
The ‘Point of Choice’ is the menu board, menu handouts, chalkboard, or “the place where consumers choose from the food and drink on offer.” Right. The cost of printing new menus is crippling for many businesses. And not just because of the reprinting of something already in existence, but also additional pages since this information will likely require more space. For instance, a cheeseburger that has the option of three different cheese choices. Is it expected that the calories will be listed for each combination?

Principle 3. Calorie information is provided per portion or per meal.
Per portion, per meal. So let’s say this calorie thing needs to be taken seriously and I go out for a proper fry-up. But I’m allergic to pork/bacon/ham/pig/sausage, so when I order the 1,200-calorie full Irish hold all the meat, is it then expected that I should be informed of the calorie count minus all those ingredients? I can totally imagine a customer expecting that kind of information if calorie counts are mandatory and this would then add maybe 10 minutes of calculations to the server’s pre-order time with this table. The other tables are delayed, food gets cold, the initial table gets annoyed. This isn’t just about having information on menus, but it will create an expectation of this information being readily available for any combination of foods on the menu. If we thought smart phones delayed dining service, this is going to really mess with efficiency.

Principle 4. Information on how many calories an average person needs in a day is given to help consumers ‘make sense’ of calories on menus.
After informing people of the content of their food, now it is time to assume their childhood science teacher failed them by not covering nutrition and give a crash course in what is a healthy calorie consumption. Instead of a server explaining the fair-trade coffee source, free-range buttermilk, or locally foraged mushrooms, he will instead be explaining the basics of caloric consumption and use.

Will menus next need to detail fat, sugar, and protein content? Honestly, THAT is more helpful in many ways. It isn’t just about calories, but about nutrition and balance in a healthy lifestyle. Personally, I do not believe in calories. They are like pork belly futures. They don’t matter until you use them up, but sugar and protein matter immediately when you eat them. Which is actually why I like the UNC study.

Think about what you eat and how you decide what to eat. Do you use your judgement? Could you imagine instead of demanding restaurants and cafes across Ireland fork over money to make new menus and hire professional food economists to determine the necessary calorie counts, the FSAI instead spent the money on a properly designed smart phone app and posters to educate the public about nutrition and what basic foods tend to have in terms of nutritional value and calories? This would also improve consumer behaviour in grocery stores, airports, and on vacation, thereby creating a healthier society outside of restaurants.

But this is just my own ramblings because I dine in small restaurants that tend to create custom menus daily, so it is mind-boggling how they’d even comply. And I love that they put love and local ingredients into their dishes and it is made especially for me, not stamped out of a pre-determined matrix of calorie-defined menu options.

Of course, the case studies being debated are either American (NYU or UNC) or the National Adult Nutrition Survey (NANS) of 2011. You might like to read the NANS methodology, sampling, and details on the survey and IUNA dietary surveys.

Further reading that is possibly less biased:

Fast-food consumers may eat less if label describes how long it takes to walk off calories (UNC)

Recommended Calorie Information on Menus Does Not Improve Consumer Choices (Carnegie Mellon University)

Calorie Labeling Has Barely Any Effect on Teenagers’ or Parents’ Food Purchases (NYU)

Calorie counting on menus ~ The US experience

McDonald’s has no plans for calorie counts on Irish menus

Study Shows Menu Calorie Counts Don’t Impact Choices (NYU)

Calorie Postings Don’t Change Habits, Study Finds (New York Times)

Mandatory calorie postings at fast-food chains do not influence food choice (Science Daily)

Calorie labeling and food choices: a first look at the effects (National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health)

Study: menu calorie counts don’t impact choices (Boston Globe)

Do Calorie Counts on Menus Curb Eating? (Time)

Calorie Labeling And Food Choices (Health Affairs) – full article in PDF

Scientific Recommendations for Healthy Eating Guidelines (FSAI)

I’m not the only blog talking about this…

Cakes, Bakes, and Other Bits

The Friendly Farmer

Now, let the comments bearing pitchforks and torches tell me how wrong I am. Oh wait, that’s just on the FOX News posts. We’re civilised here at 40 Shades of Life.

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One thought on “My Two Cents: Counting on Quality, Not on Calories

  1. Marci says:

    Hi Evin. I’m an American who considers Cork City a second home. Thank you for writing about this. I’m upset to learn that Ireland is considering requiring a practice that is already implemented in various places in the states. I have problems with the logic behind listing calories for so many reasons, including the ones you listed above.1. It reduces food, which should be a pleasurable experience and a mode of creativity, to a number. 2. It assumes a calorie is a calorie and doesn’t take nutrient content into account. What’s implied is that the calories in a decadent dessert behave in the body the same way as those in a bowl of quinoa. There’s now loads of research evidence to refute this thinking. 3. As you mentioned above, it doesn’t teach nutrition, instead it imposes a number-based, cookie-cutter interpretation of nutrition and health on a population of people who each have their own unique dietary and health needs. Instead of learning to become mindful eaters, people are encouraged to conform to a pre-determined standard of what it means to be healthy.

    If any government really wanted to improve the wellbeing of its people, it would take steps to make whole foods just as affordable, accessible and appealing as processed fast food. This would be much more effective than reverting to nutritional jargon when most people aren’t nutritionists.

    Again, thank you for speaking up on this and for such a great article. I hope more people join you.

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