A Cautionary Take on Calorie Counting on Menus
As someone who has worked in and works with restaurateurs and chefs on a daily basis my view is this is doomed before it starts. Granted a large-chain-fast-food outlet could not only finance such a venture but as their menus are semi permanent there would be little change. The same cannot be said for the vast majority of independent restaurants and cafés.
On a practical level:
· The calorie counts are highly unlikely to be accurate however worthy the intention and who checks them?
· The system is only as good as the software and there will always be the need for substitutions and adaptations when an ingredient is not on the list. I have first hand experience of this when undertaking such calculations.
· Menus constantly change depending on season, deliveries, chefs on duty and the proposition of a daily analysis is unconscionable.
· Time – i.e. money – needs set aside for this task in a world where hospitality is already critically short-staffed.
· Identifying allergens is far more important and life-threatening than calorie labels.
· Back to the inaccuracies: at best software will calculate chicken and beef for example but not differentiate between the nutritional values of battery chicken v native breed outdoor-reared, nor grain fed beef v grass fed beef – both different in minerals and fatty acids, health benefits and probably calories.
· One size fits all will never work for restaurant menus.
Last but not least, each of us use calories in different ways depending on our genetics.
On a behavioural level:
· It means very little to your average consumer, and for those who are concerned , the meal may be a treat or an investment on what was an empty calorie day up until then.
· We do not know consumers’ activity levels or health status, or where they need to get their energy from (vegetarian or keto diets for example).
· Your average consumer has a limited knowledge of nutrition from a range of sources and news reports that may not add up to a clear balanced view of what should be in their diet and a calorie counter is of no value if there is a lack of knowledge in what constitutes a healthy diet.
· One only has to pay for fuel at a petrol station to see every type of sweet and salt snack on the market – a calorie count on a restaurant meal will make no difference to the consumption of junk food where the problem really lies.
· Those with mental health and dietary issues can be severely harmed by such calorie counts – and the suggestion that you can ask for a menu minus calorie annotations is humiliating and draws attention to the issue. Those with low self esteem, anorexia or bulimia will find this whole exercise highly damaging.
· It can also spoil the eating out experience for ‘happy eaters’ who have come out to share food with friends and bring business to a restaurant – not to be lectured on an evening out.
In short, this benefits no one and just adds to the stress, financial burden and time in a restaurateur’s day. It will be inaccurate and unworkable and will do little to deter or influence the consumer. There is a real danger here: be careful what you wish for. This could be very damaging and every action has consequences.