Norfolk restaurateurs slam 'expensive' plans to publish calorie counts on menus
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Norfolk restaurant owners have slammed a “nanny state” policy to make all restaurants and cafes print the calorie counts of their dishes on menus.
The proposal from the Department of Health is designed to help diners make healthier, more informed choices when eating out, but it has met a hostile response from the treasury which said the rule change could cost the country’s small hospitality businesses dearly.
Liz Truss, chief secretary to the treasury and South West Norfolk MP, said the health department had significantly underestimated the cost to some 26,000 independent restaurateurs, and that it could bring food price rises and job cuts.
Calories are used widely as a measure of how much, or what type of food to eat and are already on display on grocery items and ready meals in UK supermarkets.
Larger hospitality chains like McDonalds, Starbucks and Pizza Express include calorie counts on their menus.
Some restaurant owners in Norfolk are in support of giving the extra information to customers – but others say the policy would incur major, even damaging, costs.
Victoria MacDonald runs the Cellar House in Eaton, Old Ram at Tivetshall St Mary, White Lodge in South Norfolk and Buck Inn in Thorpe St Andrew which all sell homemade dishes and have different daily specials.
She said she was “at a complete loss” as to how small businesses would determine the calories in their dishes, arguing the man hours necessary to work it out would make it inviable.
“How I am supposed to work out what the calorific value of an essentially homemade dish is I have absolutely no idea,” she said.
“All our chefs at all our sites cook fresh, we do not buy in so it is not as if we can measure from ready-made meals.
“What would cost the most is getting a staff member I already had to do extra hours or getting someone in to cover for the chefs while they go through the numbers – that is not what I employ chefs to do.
“It is a bit ‘nanny state’ and lacking in common sense.”
She added: “I agree with highlighting dishes that are a healthier choice, we talk to our customers and have those kind of conversations.”
Iain McCarten, head chef at the Last Wine Bar in Norwich, said the seasonality of its menu and “individual” nature of each dish could make calculating calories “nigh on impossible”.
“Perhaps including calorie counts on the menu works for large chains whose meals are industrially made, but it would add a significant burden to smaller, independent restaurants,” he said.
“We do understand and sympathise with the desire to help diners understand what they are eating and the need to improve public health. But adding significantly to the cost of eating out, and putting extra pressure on the already hard-pressed independent restaurant sector is not the way to go about it.”
Steph Garbutt, who runs Figbar in Norwich with husband Jaime, said such a drastic rule change could put their cafe out of business.
“The issue is not the dishes that we serve but preserving small businesses because it is a really expensive process,” she said.
“Unless the government offered some kind of support or published some estimates for us to use we would not be able to stay in business.”
She added: “It is good to understand healthy eating and what you are putting in your body and we and others in the Lanes are happy to support customers with their requirements and requests, but counting calories is a scientific process and if you are changing your menus every day it gets even more expensive.”
Greg Adjemian, co-owner of the Warwick Street Social, the Wildebeest, and the Ingham Swan (which is currently being rebuilt after a fire), stood out in support of the proposal.
“We’re focussed on seasonality and change our menus daily, so there’s less of a concern about reprinting. Our staff all have a broad understand of dietary requirements anyway,” he said.
“I think it’s natural progression. Supermarkets have been doing it for years, and we have to remember that this is just a calculation, it’s not exact. With all the technology that’s available if people wanted to work out the calories they were eating they could.”
He added: “I don’t think printing the calories would ruin diners’ experiences and stop people going out to eat. A dining experience is more than just the food, because you can order meals through places like JustEat – there’s a lot more to eating out than just the food.”
Nutritionist says calorie counts could be ‘over-simplistic’
The Department of Health believes its policy to put calorie counts on restaurant menus will benefit public health by pointing out “healthier” choices to consumers.
But nutritional therapist Catherine Jeans, from The Family Nutrition Expert in Norwich, says simply listing calories could be overly simplistic.
“We know from research that a calorie of fat isn’t the same as a calorie of protein or a calorie of sugar, so these numbers can be misleading,” she said. “Also we shouldn’t just look at our food in terms of calories. You can eat a very low calorie but low nutrient meal, which in comparison to a higher calorie but nutrient dense meal is very different.”
She suggested alternatives such as listing the sugar content of restaurant dishes or offering people the chance to swap out carbohydrates like potatoes for extra vegetables.
“As a parent I don’t want my kids calorie-counting, but I do want them to think about the amount of sugar they include,” she said.