Calorie counts 'to be listed on all restaurant menus in Scotland' to combat unhealthy eating

Calorie counts are set to be listed on all restaurant menus in Scotland, while childrens' menus will be subject to a code of practice, under sweeping new recommendations to transform eating out, to be put before the Scottish Government by Food Standards Scotland.

Calorie counts are set to be listed on all restaurant menus in Scotland.
Calorie counts are set to be listed on all restaurant menus in Scotland.

The body has also called for planning authorities to control the density of unhealthy eating options in different areas - particularly around schools - following a consultation on the future of the "out of home" eating (OOH) sector.

If the proposals are implemented, Scotland would become the first country in the UK to take such a step.

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Food Standards Scotland (FSS) said that voluntary guidelines to improve the health of foods sold outside the home had not been sufficient and warned that the Scottish Government "needs to be prepared to take strong action". It added that ways of implementing calorie labelling should be "explored immediately".

The recommendations were agreed at a board meeting of the organisation this afternoon and will now be put before Scottish ministers.

The board papers said that Scotland's 39,000 restaurants, cafes and takeaways needed dramatic transformation to improve Scotland's health. More than two thirds of the Scottish population is either overweight or obese.

They said: "Eating out is no longer simply an occasional treat. It is common place, with convenience stores topping the league table of visits; and lunch and snack times being the most typical occasions when food is purchased OOH."

As well as calorie count labelling, restaurants and cafes will also have to take steps to reduce portion size and improve recipe formulation to make meals more healthy.

The report also said that public sector buildings with staff and visitor cafes and restaurants should provide "a positive example" and "set the standard for healthy eating", even when catering services are contracted out.

An an estimated 25 per cent of the calories consumed in Scotland come from foods eaten outside of the home. FSS said Scots made around 960 million visits to "out of home" outlets in 2018, equating to each person, on average, visiting four times and spending £20 each week.

Lorraine Tulloch, programme lead of health charity Obesity Action Scotland, said: “Last year our work indicated that an average bag of chips could unknowingly provide a woman with half her recommended daily calorie intake. The proposed measures will ensure that consumers are fully informed about what they are buying and that the food industry improve their offering. However, a lot of these measures rely on voluntary action by food premises and do not address marketing and promotion of unhealthy products out of home.

"The new Out of Home Strategy needs to empower and help people make healthier choices every day. We will be carefully monitoring progress to ensure Scots get the healthier choices they desire for themselves and their children.”

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Ross Finnie, chair of Food Standards Scotland, said: “Almost everybody - 98 per cent of us - in Scotland eats out, and around 25 per cent of all our calories now comes from the food we eat out of home. In the absence of calorie information, our most popular choices are those which are less healthy items of confectionery, cakes, biscuits, pastries, chips, crisps and sugary drinks.

“With two out of three people either overweight or obese in Scotland and a sharp increase in the volume of takeaways being ordered, action is needed to transform the current food environment for our health."

He added: "Evidence shows that when people are aware of calorie content in food, it can influence their choices towards lower calorie options and encourages businesses to make the food they offer healthier. Eating out is now part of our everyday experience and is not always a treat as it was in the past, but we also know that calorie consumption out of home is often more than calories consumed in the home. Many popular out of home choices, such as burger meals and fish and chips can also contain nearly all of our recommended daily calories in one meal alone."

Voluntary calorie labelling for the OOH sector has been in place since 2011 when it was introduced as part of the UK Government’s Responsibility Deal, however, so far as few as a quarter of OOH businesses in the UK provide the information.

The report said: "The OOH sector lags well behind retail with respect to the availability and transparency of nutrition information. Given that eating out is an everyday occurrence there is a very strong argument for the principle that consumers have a right to know about the calories in food they buy and consume OOH. Although our preference is for voluntary measures to tackle diet and obesity, this has failed to achieve sufficient reach with respect to calorie labelling and therefore Government action to legislate in this area is now warranted.

"Without changing the food environment, including by providing calorie information, it is very difficult for individuals to choose healthier options and make informed choices."

However, a hospitality trade body warned that the move would be a cost for businesses which were already struggling amid fears over consumer spending. FSS said it offers a a free to access online tool for calculating calories.

Willie Macleod, UKHospitality executive director for Scotland, said: “Introducing mandatory labelling is potentially a retrograde step that would cause significant problems for some businesses, particularly SMEs. Smaller businesses would likely struggle to cope with an inflexible one-size-fits-all approach.

“A blanket introduction of mandatory labelling would represent a considerable additional cost for businesses already facing tightening margins at a time of unprecedented political uncertainty."

Mandatory calorie labelling was introduced in the USA in May 2018, in several states in Australia from February 2012 and in Ontario, Canada since 2017. Comparable regulations are planned for Ireland.

The UK Government consulted on a similar plan for England, although no such measure has yet been introduced.

The board paper said that there was potential for a collaboration to align the policy across the UK to "maximise impact".

It added: "We are aware there will be costs to businesses and enforcing authorities in implementing mandatory calorie labelling, for example, time to calculate calories and reprint menus. This will need to be estimated in further policy development and off-set against cost savings to health and the wider economy. UK Government has already undertaken an assessment of the costs and benefits of introducing calorie labelling in England and estimates significant net benefits to the Government."

A recent consultation by FSS showed that 68 per cent of the public was in favour of mandatory calorie labelling; people want healthier menu choices for their children; and 81 per cent agree that the public sector should lead the way in improving food out of home.

Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, based at the University of Edinburgh, said: “As the number of restaurants and takeaway businesses continues to grow, it’s important this sector develops in a way that helps diners make informed choices about what they’re eating. The proposals made here would go a long way to helping do this.

“Improvements in this area would go hand-in-hand with the Scottish Government’s plans to also make grocery shopping healthier through restricting junk food promotions. It’s vital we also see legislation on these restrictions as soon as possible."