Diners 'eat less fat and salt' if menu displays a calorie count

Forcing restaurants and cafés to print calorie counts on menus could lead to diners eating less salt and fat, a new study has revealed.

The research looked at 100 popular restaurants in Britain – many of which operate in Ireland too – and compared 10,000 menu items.

Chains which had calorie counts for various foods and dishes on their in-store menu had 45pc less fat and were 60pc lower in salt than average, the team from the University of Cambridge discovered.

The research strengthens the case here and in the UK for the introduction of mandatory calorie labelling, first proposed four years ago.

Calorie posting here is still voluntary but it has been compulsory in the United States since last year.

The research is significant because, apart from calorie posting on food and drink influencing the consumer, it shows it also works by encouraging the restaurant to offer healthier options in order to stay competitive.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said that Health Minister Simon Harris is currently developing a draft general scheme of a Bill to provide calorie labelling on menus.

“A public consultation on calorie labelling will be conducted in the coming months and it is intended that the draft scheme will be finalised by year end,” she said.

The latest research found of the 100 restaurants, 42 provided some form of energy and nutritional information online, but only 14 provided menu labelling in stores.

Chains which displayed in-store calorie counts were McDonald’s, Costa Coffee, Starbucks, Subway, Burger King and Café Nero, the study in ‘PLOS One’ said.

The researchers said Wagamama, Jamie’s Italian, Ben and Jerry’s and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts published the information online.

Across all menu categories, at least three-quarters of individual menu items were below the daily maximum recommended intake for energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.

However, some individual items contained more than twice the daily recommended amount for energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt.

In one case they found an individual dish contained 5,961 calories – almost three times the daily recommended maximum for an average adult woman.

The Restaurants Association of Ireland has described mandatory calorie labelling as unworkable and estimated it would add to establishments’ costs.

But Dr Donal O’Shea, the HSE’s clinical lead for obesity, said yesterday that the measure was long overdue in Ireland. He added any consultation on the legislation should be a “short one”.

Dr O’ Shea stressed it is one of a number of measures that still need to be taken to tackle the country’s problem of obesity.

“It is going to happen. The findings from the UK mirror similar studies in this country,” he said.

Poor diet is a leading contributor to obesity as well as to disease including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

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