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12th April 2013

Spring 2011: A big fat issue

Written by: Admin
A voluntary scheme to put calorie counts on menus will launch in September to tackle rising levels of obesity in the UK. Stockpot attended a debate to determine whether this is the right solution, and how much responsibility should fall on chefs and caterers.
Every few years or so the issue of obesity raises its head and sends warning signals to the industry and the public at large. But the latest statistics and reports are again alarming.

The Foresight report: Tackling Obesities: Future Choices project, published four years ago, predicted that if no action was taken, 60% of men, 50% of women and 25% of children would be obese by 2050.

The latest Health Survey for England data shows that in 2009, 61.3% of adults aged 16+, and 28.3% of children aged between two and 10 in England were overweight or obese, of these 23% of adults and 14.4% of children were obese.

The NHS says hospital obesity admissions have risen by 30% in a year while diet related illnesses are costing in excess of £6bn per year, according to the Public Health Commission. High calorie diets combined with a decline in physical activity are listed as the main causes but the solution, some believe, rests on those who make and sell food and drink.

Targeting food manufacturers has always been the first port of call for any action and they are being urged again by the Government to cut salt levels and trans fats in their food, while chefs and caterers are being asked to take more responsibility for what they serve to the public and the impact on their health.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has written to all the members of the Food Network, which includes companies such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Mars, PepsiCo and the Compass Group, asking them to sign a written commitment to reduce levels of these ingredients and put calories on their menus to change the public’s eating habits. But rather than take a draconian stance of law enforcement, the Government stresses the scheme would be voluntary.

The scheme entitled: Responsibility Deal would see restaurants, quick service restaurants, takeaways, cafés, pubs, sandwich shops and staff restaurants to display calories on menus from September this year to give consumers instant information about the food they are about to eat.

The Compass Group has already signed up to the Food Network pledges and has introduced calorie labelling across its businesses and pledged to significantly reduce salt content and remove all artificial trans fats from the one million meals it serves to customers every day.

The British Hospitality Association (BHA) has also welcomed the Government’s deal on health and supports a scheme that allows caterers to provide calorie information on dishes voluntarily.

But should foodservice operators bear the brunt of responsibility? The jury appears to be still out as to whether this will work.

Unilever Food Solutions (UFS) raised this issue way back in 2003 and returned to it at a debate it organised in February attended by foodservice experts. It revealed the findings of the global research it commissioned on consumer attitudes to eating out that concluded there was a greater need for clearer transparency about what is in people’s food when dining out.

Researcher BrainJuicer had canvassed 3,500 respondents from seven countries – UK, US, Brazil, China,
Russia, Germany and Turkey – who ate out at least once a week. UK findings from the World Menu Report revealed that 73% of consumers want to know more about what is in their food when eating out, 61% of respondents said they preferred to eat in places that are transparent about the ingredients they use, and 59% of those surveyed thought that knowing about the nutritional information would influence their choice of establishment – of these 75% said health was the reason.

One UK respondent said “more nutritional information would help ensure I get the balance between a treat and being healthy”.

UFS managing director Tracey Rogers says: “We know that not all consumers are asking about the nutritional value of their food when eating out of home, but if the information was available to them then this could increase. We also know the industry is far too complex and wide ranging to deliver a one-size-fits-all solution but with one in six meals eaten out of home we can’t afford to sit back and do nothing.

“We should work collectively as an industry to come up with workable solutions that give consumers an informed choice and meet caterers’ commercial and operational criteria. We believe that by providing these solutions we can empower chefs to change the health of the nation.”

Nutritionist Amanda Ursell set the scene at the debate revealing how alarming it was that the UK has the highest levels of obesity in Europe. “In 2009 more than 61% were overweight or obese. You don’t notice kids getting fatter but one in 10 are,” she says, adding that there were a number of reasons for it.

“The tradition of having meals at a set time has gone. Lack of regular mealtimes means greater temptation to grab something to eat, and canteen style dining meant different meals for different children. Then there’s child power – ‘I want’, crazy working hours causing grab and go, and also confusion over what is good and what is bad.”

Another issue is portion size, she says. “For instance, years ago the average scone weighed 48g and had 150 calories. Now the average weighs 72g and you can even get a 190g scone with 600 calories. This is happening right across product ranges,” she explains.

UFS managing director Tracey Rogers says the report findings were enlightening and frightening. The figures showed that 43% wanted to know about fat, 39% about salt and 31% about how many calories a product has in it. But more importantly, 58% of consumers wanted the industry to take the lead in ensuring more transparency.

“We believe chefs and operators have the power to help change the health of the nation,” she says.

UFS channel marketing director Richard Firth says chefs would need help. “We want to start a conversation about healthier options and we need to deliver working solutions for chefs out of home. It could be food a patient is eating in hospital, a child eating in school or someone eating pizza in a restaurant. It’s not going to be easy and it will take time. But obesity isn’t getting better so standing back doing nothing isn’t really an option.”

Suppliers such as UFS, he says, have the ability to break down nutritional content and highlight the lot – fat/healthier options. He adds that its three new services are aimed at satisfying customers with good and nutritious food. ‘Your
Guest’ is about understanding guests’ needs, ‘Your Menu’ is aimed at helping chefs deliver nutritional health and profit, and ‘Your Kitchen’ is about making kitchens efficient.

BBC’s Masterchef presenter John Torode, chef owner of Smiths of Smithfield in London, admitted he was sceptical of the whole idea of calorie counting on menus. He says even with calorie counts on food served, the consumption of alcohol needed to be taken into consideration as well as a growing lack of exercise taken by consumers – “we still have the same calories for men and women – 2,000 and 2,500 – but we drive to work and sit at our desk”.

He says all he wants to do is make good food accessible throughout the day and inform people about it. “I like to know where my food has come from and where it has been produced. We make everything in house, we change our menus with the seasons and chefs taste the food. We understand about that. But as a chef, to think about calories, salt and sugar … you have to understand some chefs left school very early. Running a business is big enough, so trying to work out nutritional content is difficult. I don’t want to do that.

“The ideology is a good one but there are many restaurants that could benefit just from consistency of standards – to know the dish is exactly the same. “The food industry has to be involved in educating the operators and those chefs coming up, not old codgers like me. There will be those cooks who will never change – bloody-minded like me, and the next generation who will be trained very differently. I think there’s room for both us.”

Restaurant business expert Sarah Willingham says it’s important to understand who your customers are and what they want. “When trends like this come to the fore, ignoring it isn’t an option,” she says. “But even if we put all the nutritional information on menus, are consumers going to want it and understand it?”

Willingham says it would be better for chains rather than independent restaurants because they have systemised menus that don’t change as much. However her opinion was that any information should be given under healthier or lighter choices sections to educate diners about different items on menus without going too far. The biggest challenges though, she says, are chefs and restaurateurs. There are many that might not have the will or the training, and to ask that generation to give nutritional information is unrealistic, she explains.