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Friday 22 September 2023 Dublin: 14°C
Shutterstock/ The poll found that calorie labelling was particularly popular among parents.
Poll shows huge support for calorie labelling on menus despite plans being shelved
Nutrition experts are in favour of the measure but restaurateurs have a number of concerns.

FRESHLY RELEASED POLLING has revealed widespread support for mandatory calorie information on restaurant menus despite plans to introduce the measure currently being off the table.

A Red C poll carried out for The Journal has found that 61% of respondents think calorie information should be introduced in all restaurants in Ireland. A further 12% said it should be introduced but only in restaurants with more than 250 staff.

A total of 21% said it should not be introduced while the remaining 6% said they did not know.

The proposal – which aims to help stop obesity- was hugely popular among parents who had dependent children, with 80% of this group backing the measure. Support among adults with no dependent children stood at 69%.

The polling company carried out online interviews with a random sample of 1,000 adults from across Ireland between 12-18 May.

The results come after last month the UK implemented mandatory calorie posting for food businesses with more than 250 employees.

What’s the story in Ireland?

The government has sought to promote calorie counts on menus dating back 10 years, when a voluntary scheme was introduced while James Reilly was Minister for Health. 

Indeed, research carried out in Ireland nearly a decade ago found that many food businesses believed that calorie labelling was “imminent” due to consumers “wanting it”.

When the 2016-2025 Obesity Policy and Action Plan was released six years ago, developing legislation to make the nutritional information mandatory on menus was listed as a priority to commence within the first year of the plan.

Then-health minister Simon Harris revisited the matter in 2019, pledging to publish the legislation before that year ended.

The Department of Health confirmed this week that work on developing the legislation was stopped when staff were redeployed to helping Ireland’s Covid-19 response and there are currently no plans to revisit the matter.

“However, priorities in relation to public health legislation are kept under continuous review,” a spokesperson noted.

The proposal is supported by medics and nutrition experts however many in the food industry say it’s impractical and would be highly costly to implement.

‘It boils my blood’

Chef Wade Murphy, who runs Restaurant 1826 in Adare Co Limerick, said there’s “absolutely no chance there will be calorie counts on my menu.”

Murphy, who has worked in kitchens around the world, said calorie labelling is achievable in mass catering but simply not possible in restaurants such as 1826.

“I can see how it can work for a multinational company or a place that has a central kitchen, doing several thousand covers out of that kitchen everyday – recipes don’t change. For somebody like us, if my sous chef adds another knob of butter to a piece of turbot, the whole calorie count is out the window,” Murphy said.

“It’s not policable, it’s not doable. Environmental Health and the EHOs [Environmental Health Officers] are already under a serious amount of pressure. So who’s going to police it?”

Murphy is also philosophically opposed to calorie counting, saying “it boils my blood to think that we are going that way with food”.

“We are primary producers of some of the best stuff in the world – our beef, our dairy, our cream, our butter,” he explained.

“They are better off running child obesity campaigns and getting people in schools – teaching about where food comes from – rather than hitting us restaurants by having to put calorie counts on the menu.”

calorie-information-on-menus DPA / PA Images Calorie labelling was recently made mandatory for restaurant chains in the UK. DPA / PA Images / PA Images

The comments are echoed by the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) which argues for “education not regulation”.

The association says enforcing calorie posting on menus would cost the state tens of millions of euros to implement and would also result in chefs having to spend more time doing paperwork than in the kitchen.

The RAI also notes that calories on their own are not a good measure of a healthy menu.

What the doctors say

While restaurateurs are opposed to calorie labelling, medics and regulated nutrition experts have weighed in behind the measure.

The Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (INDI) says it can help people to make more informed choices when eating out or ordering takeaways.

The institute said it can also encourage food businesses to produce healthier meals, as restaurants reduce portion sizes to cut the calorie value.

“It is not a quick fix but it will make people aware of the choices they make,” an INDI spokesperson said.

“Some research suggests that 30% of people will take notice of the calorie postings and make a reduction of approximately 100 calories in terms of their choices. It has been on the agenda for many years now and we hope it will be rolled out to help the consumer make informed choices,” the spokesperson added.

The HSE is also in favour of unthawing the frozen proposal. Its National Clinical Lead for Obesity, Professor Donal O’Shea, called for calorie posting to be put “back on the table” yesterday.

“We need to say we have an obesity epidemic that is crippling our health service and that is one simple thing that works,” Professor O’Shea said on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne programme. 

A HSE spokesperson told The Journal that menu labelling, including calorie posting, is recommended as part of a comprehensive approach to stem the rise in diet-related chronic diseases.

“There is sufficient scientific evidence to show that changing eating environments in the form of providing calorie posting on menus can be a powerful tool to improve the food choices of a large number of individuals at the same time,” the HSE said.

Eating disorders

In the UK, some mental health campaigners have spoken out against the recently introduced calorie count legislation citing fears it will further perpetuate eating disorders.

An estimated 1.25 million people in the UK suffer from eating disorders according to the charity BEAT, with calorie counting being a prominent symptom of these illnesses.

“Research has found that when making food choices from a menu that includes a calorie count, those with anorexia and bulimia are more likely to order food with significantly fewer calories, whereas people with binge eating disorder are more likely to order food with significantly more calories, exacerbating eating disorder behaviours,” BEAT said.

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