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Calories, allergens and traffic lights: the menu labelling debate

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Pressure is mounting on European governments and the food industry to meet people’s growing dietary, allergen and calorie requirements. Chris Evans explores the issues and solutions

Diabetes UK recently hit the headlines when a major survey it conducted found that 84% of the public think the UK government should enforce ‘traffic light labelling’ of calorie information on pre-packaged food and drinks and restaurant and take-away menus.

The proposal was generally met with nods of encouragement from those inside and outside the foodservice industry. Obesity is evidently a problem in the UK, and catering to the dairy, allergen and dietary needs of customers ‘should’ now be a widespread concern, rather than a marginal afterthought. So traffic lighting makes sense and helps us know what we’re putting in our bodies.

“Despite public protestation of living in a nanny state we all generally find it useful for dietary notices on packaging,” says Julian Edwards FCSI of Allergen Accreditation and chair of FCSI UK & Ireland. “Pre-packaged goods tend to be labelled, which is accepted practice. But labelling for loose foods and drinks is more challenging and at best can only be a guide unless the catering business is set up for weights/measures and cooked food nutrient analytical understanding.”

Concern and discontent

The biggest rumblings of concern and discontent appear to be coming from the allergen sufferers. The demand stems from health professionals and those concerned with good eating habits as opposed to the eating out/take-away community at large. But the increasing level of enquiring customers is something that cannot be ignored.

“Allergies can lead to death,” warns Jacqui McPeake, a food allergen expert at JACS. “Some restaurants and take-away outlets just see allergens as a passing fad, phase or dietary issue, but it’s actually life threatening. The younger generation of sufferers are particularly at risk when they leave home and school and have to fend for themselves for the first time. The more information restaurants provide the better.”

There is still a long way to go with allergen awareness, concedes Edwards. According to Allergen Accreditation, it will take between 4-6 years before the majority of UK and Ireland food business operators (FBOs) fully comply with the EU laws on allergens in foodservice. “As nutrient and calorific information is voluntary for FBOs many ignore it,” says Edwards. “But on the flip side, some, like Artizian, a London based business & industry (B&I) and events caterer, offer full nutrient information with the food they serve and this gives them a competitive edge when tendering for new business.”

So far, the UK government has rolled out dietary/allergen/dairy initiatives for the industry to adopt and work with as opposed to fixed regimented compliance. “This is a softer approach and ultimately those good businesses doing it right will reap the rewards as more and more customers get savvy on the dietary subject,” says Edwards. “However, last time the government introduced statutory food and nutrient standards it was a huge success. This was across all the English schools and helped raise the entire bar of this sector to the envy of other food service sectors in the country.”

International flavour

This isn’t just a UK issue either. Much of Europe is gripped by increasing customer demands for calorie information. Indeed, the traffic light approach has already been proposed in Germany by the eco party Die Grunen, but it was rejected by government. “The main reasons for this decision were the belief that the customers would not understand the criteria, that different people have different needs and that there is not sufficient scientific justification,” says Bjorn Grimm FCSI, a foodservice consultant in Germany. The government decided instead to enhance efforts in educating customers rather than installing additional labelling.

Meanwhile, there is a colour coded system in France called Nutri-pass, but awareness and understand of it in the country is low. According the Nutrition Knowledge index, the system was often misinterpreted by consumers. For example, the orange colour (equivalent to the ‘red’ in the UK) was wrongly believed to mean “they should try not to eat this product”, when the correct definition is “it’s fine to have this product occasionally as a treat”.

Interestingly, more than 60% of respondents to the index from across Europe looked at the front of the food pack, compared with only 31% in France, and staggeringly only 9% in France looked for nutritional information on packaging.

That said, consultant Sylvaine Bouquerel FCSI in France says “the food industry is lobbying government for more food labelling information on packaging, and there is a growing demand from the public for more allergen information.”

Industry action

There have been calls, particularly in the UK, for the food industry to be more proactive in dealing with these issues. Suggestions have included cutting calories by changing ingredients of products, reducing portion sizes and changing marketing tactics.

Huge billboards from the likes of McDonald’s suggesting customers go X Large with their burgers certainly aren’t helping. “There are too many ads for plus-size food,” agrees McPeake. “There should be small or medium sizes and a low calorie option. I dread to think how many calories are in an X Large burger. The nation is battling to reduce calorie intake and massive portions are not needed, especially as the body gets used to eating them.”

Grimm believes the food industry needs to win back trust. “We are seeing small kitchens and manufacturers emerging who take great care with the food and their craftsmanship, and a have a de-processed attitude, so enhancers free, no lactose, etc,” he says. “A higher transparency in the production process and the origin of the goods could help win back lost customer trust.”

As for restaurants, Edwards concedes it’s going to be hard for them to change practices. “We have some of the finest chefs and food in the world who have developed recipes and styles of food and drinks that are delicious and world class. Dissecting a recipe and reducing key ingredients can pretty much destroy all that work and effort. It’s too easy to suggest cutting calories by changing ingredients of their products, reducing portion sizes and changing marketing tactics etc.”

Instead, he suggests that in an ideal world, consumers will intake their needed calories and balance of food groups to sustain themselves correctly and enjoy the going out treat conservatively. “So it’s a two-fold approach: More consumer awareness and knowledge and FBOs developing lower salt, fat and sugar products should they wish to cater for that type of customer. The greatest piece of government-led educational marketing is the Eatwell Plate – a simple guide to how a plate should look with the abundance of fruit and vegetables and lower levels of fat, sugar and salt groups.”

Learning from requirements

The education, health, welfare and high-street retail markets should get together to share knowledge and best practice, and learn from consumers tastes and requirements, insists Edwards.

Inevitably, some customers might be put off a little by glaring calorie information, particularly in a restaurant. “If a customer is ordering a delicious entrée that they would normally have and realise how much salt, fat and sugar is in there it could have ramifications,” Edwards says with a smile. “But there is a growing army of label inspectors and careful eaters who would probably welcome the advice.”

Chris Evans