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Family in fast food restaurant (©iStockphoto.com/Paha_L)Fast food chains under pressure to label menus

Published in The Food Magazine issue 83  
4th December 2008

In a Food Magazine quiz, 82% of parents and childminders failed to get more than one correct answer when asked about the nutritional content of items listed on kids’ menus at fast food chains.

Though families eat out more than ever before, restaurant chains in the UK do not provide clear, easy-to-use nutrition information at the point of ordering; for example, listing calorie information on the menu board next to item price. If you want to know what is in the foods on children’s menus at KFC, Burger King, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, or Subway – you will need to do some advance research on company websites, ask staff for leaflets, or scrutinize the small print on packaging or tray liners.

The new Food Magazine survey shows that children often get more calories, fat, sugar and salt from fast food meals than parents realise. Without easy-to-use nutrition information at the point of ordering, it is difficult to make healthier choices at restaurants.

The Food Magazine is campaigning for nutritional labelling of menu boards at fast food chains. At a recent meeting with public health specialists, and the food industry, Public Health Minister Dawn Primarolo sounded very positive, repeatedly noting that consumers here should have this information available when they are deciding what to eat in chain restaurants. She asked why, if calorie labelling works for New York city, “can’t it happen here?”

However, the Department of Health (DoH) and the Food Standards Agency are failing to require that companies give this information. In cities such as New York, where prominent calorie labelling is now mandatory, it has taken a tough regulatory lead to get systems in place – systems that most chain restaurants have fought tooth and nail against.

Poster showing how calorie labelling could lookNew York City now fines chain restaurants that do not post calorie information properly, as illustrated in this suggested calorie labelling (http://www.cspinet.org/). An educational poster campaign is also running in more than 2,000 subway cars.

Calorie information is easy to understand, and easy (and low cost) for restaurants to list on menu boards. In New York City, it has begun to lead to healthier reformulation of menus, with reductions in fat, sugar and salt content. Early evidence shows the vast majority of consumers use the information to choose lower calorie options – reducing average energy intake by about 100 calories when they choose a meal.

Dr. Lynn Silver, Assistant Commissioner, New York City Department of Health says,” The important issue in terms of making an impact on public health is to make companies put the information on the menu boards, at point of sale, that is the key. Most hate doing this, so it needs to be forced through.”

Clearer salt information at point of sale could be the next target – as calories are generally a good marker for fat and sugar levels in foods, but low calorie options can be high in salt, making clearer labelling even more useful to consumers.

Check out our report Ignorance is not bliss when eating out at www.foodmagazine.org.uk/campaigns.
Spot the calories

The Food Magazine quizzed 125 parents and childminders about the nutritional content of items listed on kids’ menus at fast food chains. 40% of people got no answers correct, and none got more than four out of six. Few guessed that turkey breast made for a saltier choice at Subway than roast beef, ham or tuna with cheese. Or that on the Pizza Hut Kids Menu, the thin tortilla pizza had more calories in total (573) than macaroni cheese (360), thick pizza margherita (480), or three chicken goujons and wedges (412).

One parent told us, “I tried to make best guesses from what I know about food, but that did not help. I just didn’t expect nuggets to have fewer calories (175) than McDonald’s Happy Meal fish fingers (195) or a hamburger (250).” The parents and childminders who took part in our survey told us they want clearer information at point of sale in fast food restaurants.
KFC logoNutritional labelling of menu boards has begun to happen in some places in the USA, why not here? Yum Brands! announced in October 2008 that calorie labelling will appear on all their menu boards at their member restaurants in the USA, including at KFC and Pizza Hut. The Food Magazine is calling for them to do this in the UK, but the company has taken no action so far.
Fast food family image (top) ©iStockphoto.com/Paha_L