Burgers, pizzas, salads and desserts all came with a special side dish on Wednesday: a calorie count.
In the latest government effort to tackle obesity, restaurants, cafes and takeaways across England with more than 250 staff are now required to print calorie counts for meals on their menus and websites. So will this new law drastically reform people’s eating habits? Not likely.
At eateries visited by the Guardian on Wednesday, some consumers reasoned the move might be a “nudge in the right direction”, but most said it was unnecessary and would make no difference to what they would choose to eat.
Others, who have struggled with their weight in the past, said they found the figures difficult to see.
“I don’t think it’s necessary,” laughed Nosipno Zithutha before going into Nando’s at Euston station in central London, where the effort was being rolled out alongside chains across the country for non-prepacked food and soft drinks.
Nor did Zithutha think calorie labelling would be effective. “We still have to make our own decisions. If I want to buy KFC and eat something that is vegetarian or plant, I will still go for it,” she said. “I’m responsible for what I put into my body.”
Nando’s, Pizza Express and Wagamama are among the businesses that were already publishing calorie information online and began printing the information on their menus as of Wednesday.
The new law, approved by parliament last year, comes after the coronavirus pandemic shone a light on obesity and the linked increased risk of dying from Covid. According to government figures, almost 63% of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity while 40% of children are obese or overweight when they leave primary school. The cost to the NHS is estimated at £6.1bn each year.
Outside a north London branch of Pret a Manger, which began listing product calories before the government rollout, 27-year-old Rose said the figures felt daunting. She counts herself among those who look at calorie numbers when they’re there and, if a product has more than 600, she won’t have it.
“I’ve struggled with my weight in the past,” she said and “definitely find it hard sometimes” to see calorie counts.
When Jeffrey Tan sat down for lunch at an O’Neill’s pub, he said he noticed the calorie amount listed beside each item and found it “good to know” – but it had no bearing on what he chose to eat.
“I still went ahead and chose what I preferred,” confessed Tan, who opted for the sausage and mash, which he said neared 900 calories. “Significantly lower than the other pub classics.”
But overall he said including calories was helpful for people with serious health conditions and stricter diets.
The government has said that displaying calorie information “may also” encourage businesses to provide healthier options but some experts are sceptical. For Stuart Flint, associate professor of the psychology of obesity at the University of Leeds and director of the charity Obesity UK, the solution is to restrict the industry.
“To focus solely on calories doesn’t actually raise awareness. I think we’re actually taking a step back from what we have been doing for the last five to 10 years,” he said.
“The reality is there’s so many different factors that contribute to obesity,” said Flint, adding that it would be “better to focus attention on restricting the availability of food, rather than placing the emphasis solely on individuals to make choices”.
While fast-food companies such as McDonald’s and KFC already listed calorie amounts on their menus, Flint said there’s no “real evidence base” to understand where the new requirement will have an impact, or for who, or if anybody is likely to change their choices because of it.
“It’s not made a difference in terms of people going to McDonald’s, so what evidence do we have that it’s going to make a difference?” he said. “At the moment we don’t.”
Public health minister Maggie Throup said: “It is crucial that we all have access to the information we need to maintain a healthier weight and this starts with knowing how calorific our food is. We are used to knowing this when we are shopping in the supermarket, but this isn’t the case when we eat out or get a takeaway.”