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.
New 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.