Count Me Out – do restaurants owe us a responsibility to list calories on menus?

Good food or nothing more than calories?

Haven’t had a chance yet to watch the Frontline programme on the issue on RTÉ last night but hope to see it this evening. Meanwhile, here are some more thoughts on the Calories on Menus issue.

Since this debate about putting calories on menus began, an awful lot of opinion has been flying around the ether. The bulk of it has been most emphatically against the measure being introduced but there has also been opinion from those questioning opposition to the measure. One question in particular was sent directly to me by a person whose expert opinion I rate very highly indeed.

Q. What responsibility should restaurants/cafes/fast food outlets take for informing customers about their food re: calories? Surely customers have a right to know?

I would begin by answering with a question: what responsibility should we, the customers, take for informing ourselves about our food? Other than the very reasonable assumption that the restaurant has taken appropriate steps to ensure I am not going to be poisoned, I disagree with the idea of loading responsibility for my health choices onto any type of outlet retailing cooked food.

Very simply, I believe if you go into a fast food outlet, you are getting shit food, plain and simple. But if you have an appetite for shit food, go ahead, knock yourself out. Certain items on the menu may have less calories than others but it is all still shit food with other health consequences besides the amount of calories contained.

You are, of course, perfectly entitled to ask how many calories are in a dish in any type of restaurant. But other than in those establishments who have voluntarily undertaken, as a unique selling point, to list calories, I doubt very much if even a chef in a Michelin-starred restaurant will be able to give you a precise answer short of sending it off to the lab. However, while you are perfectly entitled to ask, I disagree profoundly that it is your god-given right to expect the exact answer.

The restaurant model has operated for centuries without such information, epidemic obesity is a first-world problem, probably no more than 20 years in existence in Ireland, 50 years elsewhere, at most. (Does anyone remember commenting on how the newly-arrived Eastern European immigrants were so ‘thin’? We Irish who emigrated to London and elswhere in the 80s usually sported a similar trim demeanour — nothing like a surplus of cash to put on a few pounds.)

A good restaurant would honestly confess their ignorance of the precise figure but help you choose an option to suit your dietary requirements, breaking down the ingredients, detailing cooking methods etc. If you were even halfway reasonably informed, you mightn’t need to ask anything at all, just simply go ahead and order.

It’s not restaurants that cause obesity, it’s the lifestyle choices people make.

What makes people get fat, sometimes even obese for reasons other than medical?

In no particular order, off the top of my head and with some repetition and tautology:

Greed, overeating; insomnia; addictive personalities, compulsive eating; comfort eating to cope with fear, sadness, insecurities, anger, heartbreak, loss; laziness, inactivity; stress, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, feelings of inadequacy, indiscipline, lack of willpower, bad habits learned in childhood.

A good dietician or ED Therapist could probably tidy up that list in a matter of minutes but I can’t imagine either would have much to quibble with as it is.

What doesn’t make people fat or even obese?

A profound ignorance about the calorific content of each item they choose to stuff between their lips. (Dang! If only I’d known those treble-cheese-whack-me-senseless-dog-burgers contained 4000 calories in each bite, I coulda switched to milkshakes and hot deep-fried apple pie – you got your dairy and fruit going on right there.)

Minister James O’Reilly is a GP and I’m sure as a result of his training has a very sound knowledge of what constitutes a high or low calorie foodstuff yet when he gives himself his daily checkup in the mirror, I’d warrant he’d advise himself to lose a few pounds.

Former Health Minister Mary Harney, also an intelligent, capable woman, no doubt very well informed of the differences between high and low calorie foodstuffs, is substantially overweight.

And before I’m deafened by howls of outrage, let me turn the focus on myself and let’s not sugarcoat it other than with a light dusting of spiced vanilla sugar. I am fat. About three stone overweight and counting. It doesn’t make me happy. It makes me self-concious, embarrassed. I joke about it to hide the way I really feel. I like stylish clothes but you wouldn’t know to look at me as I now dress to hide, choosing from the vastly decreased range available to me.

Yet I know a lot about food. In fact, if you put an array of foodstuffs in front of me and asked me to rank them in order of calorific content, from highest to lowest, I suspect I’d do a damn fine job of it. (As an aside, if you asked me to rank them in order of healthiest to least healthiest, the ranking could be substantially different.)

Why am I fat? Well, an aging body, a fraction of the exercise I used to get before getting back into the childrearing game, an inordinate love of all things culinary? And you might also throw in some dysfunctional attitudes to eating related to the above emotional triggers while you’re at it. But one thing is absolutely, stone-cold certain – I am not fat because nobody ever told me about those dang calories.

I was about to write that nobody, bar those at the very lowest tier of our society who have been abandoned, educationally and otherwise, enters a fast food restaurant ingnorant of the health risks of eating there — and as is blindingly obvious, the problems of excessive weight and obesity are not remotely restricted to this section of society.

But I’m afraid I cannot write such a statement because millions around the world enter these establishments every day utterly oblivious to the dangers of the crap they are about to eat. And who are these morons? Why, children, bombarded with hours of advertising before they can even walk who in turn pester parents to bring them. This is where the taste is established for junk food introducing a potentially lifelong bad eating habit. Listing calories means little to those who have yet to learn to read.

I have one older son, now 22, and throughout his childhood, I absolutely refused to buy him any of the crap from McDonalds, Burger King et al. When he asked why, I told him that it was crap and it was bad for him, simple as that. If someone else temporarily entrusted with his care took him there, that was up to them; I never interfered, I simply refused to allow it happen on my watch. Occasionally, I would cave in and buy a McToy but would still refuse to buy him anything to eat. Now 22, he has very naturally run through a couple of years of making his own food decisions which have included the very worst of junk food – that’s probably a rite of passage. But for the most part, his diet now is excellent and, furthermore, he cooks most of it himself. Very well, I might add.

I have no issue whatsoever with the Dept of Health tackling the health problems of obesity with well-thought out preventative strategies – banning all fast food advertising targetted at children would be an excellent start. And, unlike this poorly thought out strategy which to my mind has no real benefits for anyone other than the FSAI (Why do I keep picturing glaziers sneaking around after dark smashing windows?), banning fastfood advertising to children (for a start) would affect no one except the fast food companies and the TV stations. And, after all, the latter appear to have survived the banning of advertising of cigarettes and alcoholic spirits.

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28 comments on “Count Me Out – do restaurants owe us a responsibility to list calories on menus?

  1. Maggieg says:

    Couldn’t agree more! People looking for someone else to blame… Food nutrition and cookery should be a core subject from primary school in this country. Just stand and look at what people put in their trolley in a supermarket so why don’t they display calories beside price???

    • jozeemac says:

      thanks, Maggie, I also strongly suspect, if this goes ahead, that in a few years time, most consumers won’t even register those ‘numbers’ on their menus.

  2. Murray says:

    “Since this debate about putting calories on menus began, an awful lot of opinion has been flying around the ether. The bulk of it has been most emphatically against the measure being introduced.”

    Not sure I agree with this at all – I think plenty of people are broadly in favour of calorie information being displayed in some/many establishments.

    While people might have an inkling that one item has more calories than another they may not know the actual figures. Why not enlighten them and allow them to make an informed choice?

    I understand that this might be an unacceptable burden on a restaurant that frequently changes its menu, but many restaurants don’t do this, so why not give caloric information for the ‘core menu items’

    If diners don’t want to know offer them a calorie-free menu to peruse.

    • jozeemac says:

      Hi Murray, you may well be right on the first point, I suppose I’m just reflecting the opinion I have been party to, an awful lot of whom are seriously involved in the food business in some way. But, I would argue that an awful lot of very informed opinion argues against the measure.
      To take your second point to its logical conclusion, why not make it optional for restaurants to feature calories on their menus and allow punters to make the choice themselves as to which they want.
      Thanks for your comments, Murray, delighted you chose to join the debate, no matter what you think. j

  3. Hi Joe,

    I really enjoyed Suzanne Campbells interview with Pat Kenny this morning. I thought he could have given her much longer though as there were so many topics squeezed in to the slot!

    As a dietitian, I am particularly interested in the calorie posting debate. Just a few thoughts which surprisingly I haven’t read or heard on any debate yet!….

    There is huge scare mongering about the cost of Calorie posting to food businesses. I saw a tweet from a Michelin Star chef who said that it could cost a cafe 10k to implement! This is utterly ridiculous! It is difficult to say exactly what it would cost as prices cannot be set (it’s against the law, competitian law!) but I can’t see it costing more than 10 to 20 euro per analysis of a dish, depending on the number of ingredients, number of onsite visits etc. but each dieitian would negotiate their own fee with the restaurant. Complicated dishes which take longer to analyse may cost more. I have yet to finalise my own costs for calorie posting but I intend on offering value for money, maybe even an “all-inclusive price per restaurant” to do full analysis of their entire menu.

    The foods or dishes do not need to be analysed by a laboratory. This may be done in the future if large numbers of premises show innaccurate calorie data.

    The FSAI technical guidelines state that Technical experts must be consulted by the food businesses in order to ensure that the information is correct. Analysis must be carried out by a qualified dietitian who is trained to analyse foods & recipes using approved accreditated and validated Nutritional Analysis software prgrammes which are based on data from Irish & UK foods (Ref.: McCance & Widdowson). Such software programmes include DietPlan6®, WinDiet®, WISP®, the latter is the one I use in my practice.

    App’s won’t do either as they are based generally on US food data, which is not permitted in the anaysis.

    I even saw another tweet from a guy who thought jobs could be created in getting “people” to help restaurants to calculate the calories! This beggars belief! I’ve seen loads of restaurants locally here in Cork who have provided their own analysis on some of their menu items. I’d be 100% sure that the figures ARE TOTALLY WRONG! One deli in Carrigaline also used the words “low calorie” on the advertsing poster which is a legally protected labelling term, and there’s no way the meals listed fall into that category of less than 40 cals per 100g of product (apart from perhaps the soups, but it depends on serving size). I intend to take this is up with them today& offer to re-analyse 2-3 of their so-called low calorie dishes free of charge, just for the sake of accurancy, but I don’t make a habit of providing consultancy work free or charge!

    If the calories are incorrect throughout the country due to DIY calculations, the whole idea of ‘calories on menus’ is totally pointless. I’d love to see a broader article on this topic, pointing out that

    1. It is simple, quick & cheap to carry out

    2. It must be done by technical experts (dietitians – there are approx 600 qualified dietitians/clinical nutritioinsts in Ireland who are members of INDI http://www.indi.ie , but there are only 16 are fulltime freelance & self employed dietitians who available to do this work.

    3.Technical rules must be adhered to: Apps won’t suffice, and calories posted MUST be accurate. Nutritional analysis software baed on Irish & UK data must be used. Nutritional therapists, self-professed unqualified nutritionists, foodies, chefs, interested parties or the food businesses themselves cannot provide the calorie data!)

    As I say, just a few thoughts!
    All the best,

    Niamh O’Connor
    BSc Hons (Human Nutrition), Dip Hons (Dietetics), MINDI
    Consultant Dietitian & Clinical nutritionist (with 18 years experience!)

    My Website (www.corknutrition.ie) is a bit out of date but check back in a few weeks when it’ll be totally revamped by the team at Fuzion PR & all new content by yours truly!

    • jozeemac says:

      Hi Niamh, thanks a million for replying. I would like to put your comments on the facebook page to allow others in the debate to give their own feedback.
      May position on the issue is that it is not a good idea to put calories on menus, full stop. My reasonings are complex (although I find the arguments put forward by those with ED compelling enough to stand on their own) and I am attempting to put them all down on the blog in the coming days but I appreciate your thoughts.
      However, my understanding from reading the FSAI information is that they are not entirely clear themselves how this measure will be implemented, who will provide the technical information and how it will be paid for. I would be grateful if you could point me to your source of information.
      thanks again, Niamh, j

    • jozeemac says:

      One more thing, Niamh, taking a conservative stab at a menu ie underestimating the amount of dishes: five starters, five mains, five desserts comes to, using your figures, 300. What if restaurants change menus several times a year, again a conservative estimate? Most restaurants in the country are now operating as close to the margin as is humanly possible. Yet here we are proposing another unnecessary cost?

  4. Maggieg says:

    With reference to the above comment the only people likely to gain from this are people such as Niamh. It has already been proven that listing calories on menus in US has done nothing to reduce obesity. The only way to reduce obesity is to educate from primary level and to tax fast foods. (I have no problem with listing calories in fast food outlets who have the same menu year in -year out and who also closely control portion size). With education it would also become apparent which calories are beneficial and which nutritionally empty, highly calorific foods should be avoided. The major problem in this country is lack of knowledge and education with respect to food and cooking it. It is also necessary to encourage far more sport participation and PE in schools. The local secondary girls school near me has 1 hour/week PE and every lunchtime hoards of teenage girls leave the premises to walk up the town to buy fast food and sweets for lunch. Does anyone really think calories on a menu in a restaurant is going to stop these kids becoming obese? This whole proposal is the typical short-sighted Irish approach to a problem and is like using a sticking plaster to stem a pumping wound.

  5. Hi Joe
    With regards to Niamh’s comments above RE; cost and a michelin-star chef allegedly ‘scare-mongering’, the fact of the matter is that it cost the Bay Restaurant in Clontarf €10k to implement it across one, unchanging menu (they then also email ‘specials’ on a monthly basis to their consultants for analysis). This is on record.
    I have quotes from companies offering this service of a base price per dish of €40 or €60 per hour for work by a dietician. Another company quoted by €1,000 ‘discount price’ to provide calorie counts on a menu, but without seeing description or ingredients list for any of the dishes, most of which have 4 or 5 separate elements and 50 or more ingredients.
    Honestly, I don’t think many of these dieticians/nutritionists know what they would be getting themselves in for if they started trying to provide calorie counts for our chefs menus – but I’d love to see them providing their guarantee of its accuracy and putting themselves in the firing line if penalties or litigation ensued.
    BTW – the company who quoted €1,000 – this was for their ‘Guesstomation Count’ method. Their words! BUt sure, why not let all the chefs ‘guesstomate’ how many calories are in the dishes themselves?. Or……maybe the diners could try to figure it out for themselves….
    Thanks for yoru insightful thoughts on this issue so far.
    For us, like you I think, the bottom line is that this is the totally wrong way to approach food. Perhaps instead of following the lead of the fattest people in the world – who keep getting fatter – we might consdiering turning to the healthiest, leanest people cultures in the world and wonder why things are so different for them………..

    • Hello again,

      I left 2 long replies yesterday but when I clicked the “post comment” they disappeared, very frustrating. Anyway, I’ll attempt a much shorter version here.

      I am absolutely totally and utterly gobsmacked that it would appear to be true regarding the 10k paid by the Bay restaurant for menu analysis, Eurotoque has said that the fee is on record. I think the fee is totally unjustified. I suppose it’s the same way that chefs would feel about hearing that another chef or restaurant was charging 300 euro for a fillet steak instead of 30 euro for example. I really hope that food business owners can look beyond this ‘event’, and not tar us all with the same brush.

      A group of nationally based Dietitians, SEDI (list attached) who are members* of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute provide menu analysis to restaurants, hotels, catering establishments and cafes. They will provide calorie information to help meet the requirements set out by Minister Dr. James Reilly and in accordance with the Technical Guidance Notes from FSAI for calorie posting on menus. They are suitably qualified technical experts who have a track record in conducting meal/snack/food composition analysis.
      SEDI dietitians will carry out analysis using validated and comprehensive high-quality dietary analysis software such as WinDiet®, DietPlan6® and WISP® which are based on McCance & Widdowson food and nutrient composition tables. This is an important consideration as outlined in the FSAI Technical Guidance Notes.
      The costs will be based on the time required to complete the analysis. Factors such as complexity of recipes, the provenance of ingredients, the tracking and tracing of ingredients and the volume of dishes/items on a menu influence the cost of the analysis. Each SEDI dietitian will prepare and negotiate their own fees & cost schedule with the client.
      This allows the food businesses to flag not only the calories, but certain low-fat or high-fibre items for example. You can also provide customers with information on saturated fat or salt levels in certain items.
      Food businesses may even design nutrition symbols to highlight certain characteristics of menu items, which can help improve consumer choice. Also, this type of value added information can help to facilitate a more healthful approach to menu selections and choice.

      What is involved?
      • The SEDI dietitian will work alongside food businesses appointed chef/staff member to provide a basic calorie count or a more comprehensive nutritional analysis of relevant dishes on your menu.
      • The SEDI dietitian will advise the food business on relevant changes to provide a more favourable calorie count if required.
      • The SEDI dietitian will educate any staff members in the food business and help them understand and comply with the Technical Guidelines and any food legislative requirements.
      • SEDI dietitians understand that they may have access to commercially sensitive information such as recipes as part of the menu analysis. As members of INDI they work under a strict code of Ethics & Best Practice, and have Full Professional Indemnity Insurance. Absolute confidentiality is guaranteed.

      Many of us have been doing this for years for various clients, particularly workplace canteens & franchised restaurants. I have never heard the phrase “Guesstomation count method” or any version thereof in relation to nutritional analysis. It’s either correct or incorrect. Thankfully, estimates and guesstimates will not be permitted by FSAI as acceptable figures for calorie posting.

      I have a list of SEDI dietitians throughout the country who are members of INDI, should any chef/hotel/restaurant wish to contact a dietitian who will discuss the matter further with them & negotiate reasonable (small) fees for menu analysis.

  6. Mark Collins says:

    @Niamh,
    Calculations do not have to be done by a qualified dietician. If you are using the analysis method – use an INAB accredited laboratory e.g. Eclipse, Enva, If you using the calculation method, get a copy of McCance & Widdowson, an accurate digital scales and a calculator. (or use software)..

    Mark Collins

  7. Hi Joe,
    I am in a strange situation with this debate – I am a trained dietitian and chef and self-employed. Having worked in a couple of kitchen over the years, I completely understand how ridiculous it seems to chefs in the industry. There are often no standard recipes. The creative atmosphere of a good kitchen is totally attacked at the thought of having mandatory calories on menus.

    As I dietitian, I’ll say straight out, consultancy work like auditing menus is part of my bread and butter. I’m in the middle of one right now for a staff canteen. Staff who eat at this good but fairly standard, basic canteen have requested it in order to make more informed choices where they eat 5 days a week. I think their request is justified. To give a good example – lasagne is a very popular dish. A typical lasagne dinner in this country is a portion of lasagne, chips & coleslaw (not exactly the way mama intended) = over 1200 calories. Lasagne is a complete food in that it contains carbohydrates (pasta), protein (meat) and lots of fat. The plate needs more veg & salad – everyone needs more veg and salad – and if it was just lasagne + 2 veg/salad = 600-700 calories, which is a perfectly acceptable dinner. I think people should know that when they’re buying it.

    I agree with Niamh in that the “Healthy option” on menus is usually far from it and incredibly misleading to consumers. While you and those interested in food have a good grasp on food concepts and health, many are confused. There is a lack of decent, reliable information that consumers can trust. Just look at the supermarket – most isles don’t need to be there!
    But, we also know that education alone does not lead to change in behaviours. The vast majority of my clients have been through every health craze (good and bad) before they come to me looking for long-term change. A supportive environment is needed to effect widespread change.

    I don’t have the answer to this one – I would love to see calorie posting on take-aways, canteens and delis where most of our 50% overweight & obese population eat on a regular basis. It would probably prompt many establishments to offer real health options.

    Most of all I’m happy about this debate because it has really created discussion about the biggest crisis we face with regard to our health and the health of the next generation.
    Sarah Browne

  8. jozeemac says:

    Hi Sarah, thanks very much for all that – unfortunately, I am heading off shortly and have a deadline to meet first so won’t be able to get back to this until after the weekend.
    On the canteen you are currently evaluating – I have no problem whatsoever with this being done if the staff have requested it. Just as I have no problem with a restaurant choosing to implement such a system unprompted.
    My problem remains the idea of compelling all restaurants to do it, for a variety of reasons.
    Would like to hear the dieticians address the Eating Disorder issue, for a start. Also, here and elsewhere, it has been repeatedly said that education doesn’t work but nobody is saying what kind of education. Are we talking about public service announcements/bulletins/information sites/publications, targetting the entire population with the same vague, generalised ‘health advice’ or are we talking a root and branch evaluation of how this education is carried out ie should it not begin in primary school, including cooking lessons and food information for all? Do you know how attitudes to recycling have been most profoundly affected in this country over the last decade? By beginning with educating the children who in turn went home and set about educating their parents. How about targetting specific demographic groups of the population with information particular to them? How about looking at the traditional means of disseminating this info and acknowledging that most of it is not at all effective. How about a health dept that attempts to do something concrete on the issue, some serious preventative policy as opposed to the sticking plaster response which does as much damage as it does good?
    joe

  9. Elisabeth Ryan says:

    Great Article – thanks! Just solely on the issue of analysis. I don’t agree with Calories on Menues for the most part – BUT – Should the government implement such a measure – my feeling is that they could and should easily provide the restaurants with the software to use to work out calorie content – I wouldn”t see any need to involve third parties. At the end of the day – this is simply a question of entering the ingredients and quantities in to an approved programme – so why should a ‘nutritionist’ get paid for that… fine if they want to get someone to advise on how to reduce calories or options etc, but for simple analysis – it is just a programme!

    • Hi Elisabeth,

      I found your reply very interesting on a number of levels. If only it were as simple as you might like to think!! A few more points if I may…..

      Food businesses cannot self-regulate or be allowed to regulate themselves when it comes to food legislation and any aspect thereof.
      ….It’d be like be a restaurant putting up a sign of being HACCP approved because the place looked relatively clean and they had read and were familiar with HACCP policies of procedures;
      ….Or indeed a restaurant claiming certain dishes to be “gluten-free” just because the ingredients were gluten-free. Using guten free ingredients does not in any way guarantee any person with the Coeliac Condition that the meal is safe to eat! When those ingredients are prepared and cooked in a potentially unsafe environment of cross-contamination and haven’t undergone lab analysis to ensure the gluten content of less than 20 ppm, then they cannot be labelled gluen-free. Under new EU legislation and lebelling which fully came into effect on 1st Jan 2012, foods can ONLY be labelled Gluten free if they contain 20ppm of residual gluten. (The previous level permitted was 10 times higher @ 200ppm (or 200 milligrams of Gluten per Kg of the food).

      Whilst you might like to think that’s its is just a case of entering lists of ingredients and quantities into a software programme, this is not as simple as it sounds either! As part of my 18 years experience as qualified dietitian / clinical nutritionist, I worked as senior research nutritionist with the Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance (www.iuna.net) for 3 years, working on a 32 county all-Island project. As part of a team of 5 others, I spent 6 months on study design to ensure accurancy, and the other 2 and a half years on detailed and meticilous food data collection, food data entry and analysis of this data for the Irish population. We used a software porgramme called WISP (from Tinuviel software in the UK) which was then customised for Irish foods, ingredients and recipes. Let me assure you it is/was anything other than simple or straight forward.

      Why is it that it comes to the topics of food, nutrition, diet etc we are all self-professed experts! If only all professions were interchangeabe what fun we would have! I have always wanted to be pilot for a day! I wonder if I turned up at Cork airport tomorrow and asked to “have a go” because it looks easy and I’m sure the instruments would guide me through the process! I can drive a car for the past 22 years, so how hard could it be to extend that skill to flying! (Exceedingly difficult and impossible!…. I hear myself say!)

      I’m also now looking back to when I was building my first house, and why I had to pay a consulting engineer thousands of pounds (old money, 1999!) to sign off on the foundations and various other stages of construction – I was fairly sure myself that it looked level enough, but I had to pay a professional because

      1. Eveyone elses job is not as easy or simple as it may appear.
      2. No one other than someone in a profession themsleves has any idea of the huge level of knowledge and expertise they have on their chosen profession/career
      3. It is NEVER as easy as it looks!
      4. Its the law!
      5.Technical experts do it best, in the best interests of their clients, the law, society as whole etc.

      Perhaps you might like to read a guest blog which I wrote recently for a cookery school in Cork
      entitled “it’s not rocket science” for another take on why every thinks nutritional science is so simple!!…..
      http://live-and-cooking.umnumnum.ie/recipes/its-not-rocket-science/

      And my final thought for this evening….. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing!

      Kind Regards,
      Niamh O’Connor
      Consultant dietitian / clinical nutritionist
      TCD graduate 1993
      BSc Hons (Human Nutrition), Dip Hons (Dietetics), MINDI

  10. Regarding Joe’s query about those with eating disorders: from my experience in working with those affected, the last thing they would do is eat out in a restaurant. The idea of eating food prepared from ingredients and by cooking methods outside of their control is totally unacceptable. To this end knowing the calorie content would actually be very helpful for those in whom the main driving force of their eating disorder is control, control and more control via calorie counting/exclusion.
    Calorie displays are just that, an indication of the total energy content. They tell the consumer nothing about the overall quality of that food. More important to display is the source of those calories, The Irish need to aim for kcals (energy) from certain foods ( fruits, veg, pulses, wholegrains, oily fish) over others (saturated fats, refined carbohydrates with high glycaemic index). The calorie content tells the consumer nothing about the fat,salt, sugar, artificial colour or MSG contents for example.
    A traffic light system or similar, where foods are classified as green for go, amber for caution, red for restricted, in my opinion, is far more useful for the consumer as it focuses on the quality of the food as opposed to calories. 100kcals of a high fat food has a totally different health effect (for example on appetite, blood pressure, blood cholesterol, glycaemic index, insulin requirements) to 100kcals of a high wholegrain food.
    I hope we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater on this one and in response to the expert opinion you value: I’ve worked with children and families for most of my professional life. Empowerment through timely, targeted nutrition education is essential, how to achieve this is question. There is so much confusion, misinformation, myths, old wives tales… but don’t underestimate the level of complete and total ignorance that exists around food. When you have mouths to feed, when you’re financially stretched, competing against the likes of a six pack of crisps and a white pan loaf costing less than a litre of milk, quantity over quality wins every time.

  11. Mark Collins says:

    @Niamh
    I have read the guidelines too. I’m not suggesting that restaurants use an app to calculate. The smartphone apps such as Map My Fitness are suitable for the general public to calorie count. As for using a calculator, obviously using an excel worksheet (not just a calculator) and McCance & Widdowson database is recommended if you do not have the software.

    Remember, the FSAI doc is a draft technical guideline and as such has no legal standing. So the suggestion that restaurants MUST use a certain qualified person is not the case at present. (there are far more categories of technical experts other that dieticians and nutritionists e.g. food technologists). I am not doubting your qualifications or credentials in any way and it is fantastic that someone like you takes the time to contribute to this debate.

    I still don’t think calculation or using software is possible for every product. It gets very difficult with products like soup where you may add a stock as a base (which itself is a multi-ingredient product) and the water loss factor is will affect the calculations. Also, there are situations where ingredients are added (e.g. garlic bulbs) for flavour and then removed again before serving and may only contribute a fraction of the calories that they contain. Other products e.g. certain sauces / consommes are prepared and then strained before serving removing components (and also calories). How can you possibly accurately calculate the calories in such products?

    As a food technologist I do these calculations regularly when I am submitting online specifications to multiple retailers. The ingredient declaration on labels is based on the recipe at mixing bowl stage however because of water loss during processing e.g. baking, the order of ingredients as they appear on the label does not necessarily reflect the actual order by weight of the final product.
    Retailers will not accept calculations for nutritional content without analysis.

    I know this is a massive business opportunity for dietitians, food technologists etc. but the bigger picture is that our restaurant industry is struggling, the extra cost of this will push many over the edge. It will create further unrest and discord between restaurant owners and the legislative bodies. There will be plenty of business there for dietitians from restaurants who want this and can afford it in any case – there is no need to make this mandatory. It is getting harder and harder for proper independent restaurants to compete (against the likes of M&S with their dine at home deals, against family style restaurants and chain restaurants such as Milanos, against pizza delivery firms with their massive discounting). I want our indigenous restaurant industry to survive and prosper.

    I think we have to look at the bigger picture as to why there is higher percentage of the population obese versus 15 years ago? Are independent restaurants serving more unhealthy food? Has there been an huge increase in family style chain restaurant and fast food restaurants? What has changed is that children as young as 5 are drinking 500ml ‘energy drinks’ with 180 calories in them. Every convenience store and garage forecourt is selling sausage rolls, muffins, breakfast rolls (all unlabelled without any nutrition or ingredient info). When I was a teenager, we still drunk 330ml cans of coke and the 500mls can were called ‘supercans’! We had a fry on Sunday only.

    The problem is the total lack of awareness of food and its affects on health amongst children. About 4 years ago I was in a Gala shop in Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo. There was four teenagers ordering baquettes (400 kCal vs 2 slices bread 190 another change from years ago). The first teenager ordered chicken in his roll. The shop assistant had a few roast chickens on the counter cooling and proceeded to carve some chicken breast. The teenager shouted ‘stop, stop’ and asked was that the only chicken they had, do they have any ‘real chicken’. The puzzled shop assistant said ‘that is real chicken, what do you mean?’ The teenager said ‘I want the white chicken not the stuff with bones and skin and stuff’ The other teenagers were similarly disgusted and shrieked OMG etc. They wanted the pre cooked chicken pieces that you get in the packet that is pumped full of water, salt, phosphates, lactose etc. Eventually they settled on ‘hot chicken’, the breaded cooked chicken fillets. I remember thinking at the time ‘this is Kiltimagh the very definition of a rural market town. If its like this here, what is it like in Dublin? That is problem we face.

    Putting calories on menus will make this worse. Children will identify food and it health value based on its calorie content alone, they will start to call bread, pasta etc. ‘carbs’. They will start become more obsessed with ridiculous faddish diets. My 6 year old stepdaughter already refuses to drink milk because there is ‘fat in it’ but she will happily eat some processed meat crap with a smily face on it. This is deeply concerning.

    When I went to school the typical lunch consisted of a ham & cheese sandwich (approx. 320 kCal) an apple or orange (approx 80 kCal) and a carton of milk 150 kCal). That is 550kcal in total.
    A typical school lunch for a teenager today consists of a demi-baquette with fillings (400kCal in the baquette alone and probably another 300kCal in the filling), a muffin (approx. 400kCal) and a bottle of lucozade or similar (approx 200 kCal). That is 1300 kCal in total.

    Just look at the sponsors of the Olympics – Cadburys, McDonalds, Coca Cola. What message does this send? Every confectionery company is giving away free sposrts equipment, Nestle are telling us their cereals are ‘wholegrain’ and that is great (they don’t tell you that many of their cereals have high levels of sugar too)

    The reality that the HSE has no money to enforce this. They cannot afford to take samples away and analyse them.

    If this law was applied to restaurants with more than 10 units it would be far more practical to implement and enforce. This would cover McDonalds, Burger King, SuperMacs, Subway, Insomnia, etc. and account for a huge proportion of the restaurant meals consumed every day. All those mentioned have already made the calorie information available in any case so it goes back to my original thought – this should be voluntary, if restaurants want to use it a selling point let them do it.

    • jozeemac says:

      thanks to all so far for such in-depth and obviously thought out replies. Interesting as well to see contradictory opinions from those operating professionally in the same field.
      Niamh, thanks again for continuing to contribute. Would be interested to know whether you think the policy is actually a good idea and also wonder to whom exactly the ‘little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ comment is aimed at? It would be great if you could expand on that.
      Ruth, thanks for a great post: with regards to Eating Disorders, I was expressing a concern more than a query as I have been privy to some of the debate amongst those with an ED who have all expressed absolute horror at the idea of this being implemented. I would be very interested to hear from someone who dealt with those with ED on the therapeutic side. I have no wish to impugn the integrity of your remarks whatsoever but is it possible you have been dealing with people with ED at a time when they are coming through the most traumatic part, when they are at their weakest and most vulnerable? I know quite a few with ED who now live relatively normal lives compared to when they were at their worst. And they do frequent restaurants and cafes and bars. Love to hear more on this, Ruth, from you or from others. Also, you raise the question of ‘how to educate’ – that really is at the very heart of this debate. Attitudes have to be changed and it has been shown that the current modes of public ‘health education’ are not working – what is the alternative.
      Mark, some very good stuff there, thank you very much, on the issue of funding for this, squirrelled away in some of the FSAI literature is a reference to the possibility of securing funding to aid businesses in that respect. I also referred to in my first post on this whole affair, the possibility that EU structural funding has already been applied for and that this whole not remotely ‘public consultation’ is part of the process of rubberstamping that application.
      I realise that there are differing views popping up on this page but I truly appreciate all the time and effort even if I disagree with some of them personally. This is exactly the type of debate that should have been held on the issue before any moves on the part of the Dept or the FSAI. I hope we can continue to push the debate further.

      • Hi everyone!

        I’m wrecked after a long day but managed to read the posts between appointments this evening and wanted to get stuck into this debate again!

        Joe, yes I have to say I still agree with the policy as a whole, but of course its the finer points that will make it workable or unworkable as the case may be! For the sake of adding a few voices and opinions to the debate, I asked all patients today if they were familiar with the proposed new policy and did they agree with it, and it was a resounding yes from all patients on both counts. I also asked them to complete the online consumer survey, and to ask as many of their friends to do the same.
        For what it’s worth, I also had 3 enquiries from food businesses today regarding working with them to analyse their menus – one artisan bakery/coffee shop, one deli & one fast food chain.

        The “little knowledge” reference is really aimed at the food busiensses themselves who seem to think that analysing menus is easy. And as Mark has poined out in great detail (thank you), the more complicated the dish then the more complicated the ingredients and analysis would be. Perhaps there should be different ‘rules’ for foods/dishes with more than 25/30 ingredients? Maybe there should be a stipulation that the potential scope for error is so significant, that such meals should be sent to a lab, and maybe any funding that the FSAI can secure should be reserved for restaurants who have to analyse such complex dishes? As I have said before I do not envisage the cost as being in way a significant factor in this debate, unless lab analysis is required. Yesterday I contacted a number of labs, so I’m just waiting on costings so that I can advise clients of which meals or dishes may warrant this type of analysis, particularly if allergen labelling is something they wish to advise their customers on.

        I totally understand that just putting calories alone on menus is a bit one dimensional but we have to start somewhere in trying to educate people. I absolutely agree with Ruth that there is a palpable level of confusion among most adults regarding food and nutrition. The old saying of ‘Everything in moderation’ is best left back in the dark ages – what’s moderate to one person is someone else’s idea of completely excessive, and vice versa!

        In relation to obesity in kids, if I remember correctly a task force was set up a few years ago to come up with key strategies to tackle this. Again if I recall, 93 recommendations were made!! Yes, 93!! Surely 2 or 3 if implemented correctly, would suffice! In relation to the amount of resources (community dietitians & public health promotion officers primarily) that are put into educating kids in school about healthy eating (school policies re healthy lunchboxes etc), I think it is a total waste of resources. In any given year of school-going child (primary school), only (approx) 10% of their total energy intake is comsumed at school, so it seems pointless to throw resources at 10% of the problem, if 90% of their food is eaten at home or somewhere else! And even though my own kids’ schools have a strict policy of only allowing a ‘small treat’ in the lunchbox on a Friday, they are frequently rewarded with jellies/chocolate etc buy the teachers. This is totally counter-productive! In the “Food Dudes” programme which is wide accepted as being hugely sucessful, it aims to get kids to try (as in actually eat!) fruit and vegetables, but the rewards are never junk foods -they are non-food treats such as ‘cool’ pencils, stickers, toys, drinking cups etc. – http://www.fooddudes.ie/main.html

        Obesity in young kids can be firmly laid at the door of the parent(s)/carers. Although 15 different genetic loci have been identified in relation to obesity risk, they only account for a 1 point change in BMI, which means the problem is still environmental – food, exercise & other lifestyle factors.
        I think a new taskforce should be set up, which would include the voices of children and parents as well a wider range of professionals with a totally fresh approach.

        In relation to Eating Disorders I again agree with Ruth, that these people are unlikely to eat out due to an overwhelming lack of control in such an environment, because they don’t know how the food was cooked or prepared, and in my experience they tend not to eat out.

        That’s all for now folks,
        Kind Regards,
        Niamh O’Connor

  12. Maggieg says:

    With reference to the comment “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” – I think it is more dangerous to assume that the person contributing to the debate has a little knowledge or in other words is not a qualified dietician…..there are many other types of “qualifications” that are relevant to a debate of this nature! And actually having experienced the diets prescribed by qualified dieticians in hospitals in this country I think the patients are lucky to get out alive 😉

  13. Martin says:

    Hi , I have put five kids throuhh Primary Education which included the years before ,during and after the Food Dudes Program. Our eldest son now 21 years old was given the name “Sandwich Boy” by his class mates beacuse he came to school with a packed lunch. Jumping to the present day my fifth child continues to go to school with a packed lunch ,the lunches of her school mates range from sandwiches to cold pizza and cold Happy Meal Burgers, this is spanning the last sixteen years ,we need to educate the lazy consumer not penalise all .

  14. Martin says:

    Please forgive my spelling errors , late in the day

  15. Donal Hayes says:

    Joe – you will be interested in this article from the Washington Post. Particularly point number 3. Regards.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/five-myths-about-healthy-eating/2011/10/10/gIQAK9uZkL_story_1.html

    • jozeemac says:

      very good, Donal, thanks a million for that. Will put it up on the facebook page as well. BTW had a very quick look at your blog (plan to go back later when the infant in the next room stops wailing for me!) and wondering if your ‘wild garlic’ might be three-cornered leek?

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