Does calorie labelling carry weight?

By Juliane Caillouette-Noble, SRA Development Director

Covid-19 has laid bare inequities across our society, but none more stark than those in our food system. We have long known that the health of our nation was in decline, with two-thirds of our population overweight or obese. For decades now campaigners have been pushing the government to take broader action against obesity, pushing for a systems level approach. COVID-19 has been a wake-up call, and the Government has responded with perhaps the most ambitious Obesity Strategy of our time.  

One of the strongest things about the government’s obesity strategy is that it finally recognizes that in order to improve the health of the nation, we need to tackle the broader food environment, placing responsibility at the feet of industry and marketing, not solely on the individual. Though there is additional funding and programming for supporting individuals to improve their diets and increase their exercise, the most interesting parts of the strategy look beyond the individual.  

 Three great ideas in the new Obesity Strategy: 

  1. Ending BOGOF Promotions 

Purchasing healthy food is not a level playing field. As the strategy points out ‘Promotions like buy one get one free (BOGOF) which encourage us to buy more to get the deal appear to be mechanisms to help shoppers save money, however data shows that they actually increase the amount we spend by encouraging people to buy more than they need or intended to buy in the first place’. Promotions like these not only often promote processed, unhealthy, calorie dense but nutrient sparse foods- they also lead to a LOT of household food waste.  

  1. Clearer food labelling

Food labelling is a complex issue, but it shouldn’t take an expert to decode what is healthy or not. We welcome the government’s consultation on moving to ‘traffic light’ labelling, and to pushing the UK to be a leader in transparency and clarity.  

  1. The 9pm Watershed on junk food marketing

Research shows that exposing children to junk food adverts can increase the amount of food children eat and shape their preferences from a young age. Campaigners like Jamie Oliver and youth leaders in the Bite Back 2030 Coalition have been very vocal in breaking down the issue, and it’s great to see the government listening.   

Things to keep our eye on: 

There is no doubt that there needs to be greater transparency into what we are being served when eating out. As the strategy says, ‘what and where we eat is constantly evolving’ and ‘buying food on the go [is] increasingly important’.  

We at the SRA know how important it is that diners are informed in order to make good choices when eating out. We know that diners consistently say that they want healthy and sustainable options, even if their spending doesn’t reflect that, and we are great advocates for transparency across the sector. However, legislation to require calorie labelling for businesses with more than 250 employees doesn’t entirely fit the bill. First of all, there are only a limited number of businesses that fit that description, leaving out a vast majority of takeaways up and down the country. Secondly, many of the large restaurant and pub groups, like SRA member JD Wetherspoon already put their calories on the menu. In the US, where calorie labelling on menus is common practice, studies have shown that it has negligible impact on public health. The decision to add calories again fails to improve what’s actually on the menu and puts the responsibility on the diner, rather than the business, often leaving them even more confused.  

Our Kids Veg Out campaign, asking restaurants to commit to serving two portions of fruit and vegetables with every children’s meal, if legislated, could help ensure that children meet their 5-a-day and shift long term behaviour without ever needing to introduce the word calorie.  

We would love to see the government offering businesses positive incentives for shifting to healthier (and more sustainable!) options on their menus. Schemes like the Healthier Catering Commitment support small businesses to make tangible differences, yet they remain voluntary. Moving away from voluntary to mandatory commitment helps even the playing field and raises the bar.  





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