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What does the calorie labelling law mean for people with eating disorders?

The new calorie labelling legislation in England – aimed at tackling the obesity crisis – has been welcomed by many, but does it also carry a cause for concern? New Food’s Editorial Assistant, Abi Sritharan, finds out.

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COUNTING CALORIES: A welcome step in the right direction or have PHE "lost the plot"?

New calorie labelling regulations came into effect in England this month (April 2022), meaning many food and hospitality businesses will be required to serve customers something extra with their dishes: calorie information.

What does the calorie labelling rules mean?

The Calorie Labelling (Out of Home Sector) (England) Regulations 2021 will require food businesses with more than 250 employees to provide calorie information on physical menus, online menus, food delivery platforms and/or food labels. In line with the Calorie Labelling Regulations, businesses will be required to include the energy content of the food in kilocalories (kcal), reference the size of the portion that the calorie information relates to, and include the statement: ‘adults need around 2,000 kcals a day’.

“The legislation is part of the Government’s strategy to tackle obesity and applies to all businesses in England that have more than 250 employees, but while it is aimed at larger businesses, smaller food businesses are also being encouraged to adopt voluntary calorie labelling,” said Fleur Key, the Company Nutritionist at Brakes, a wholesale food service supplier in the UK.

The UK Government states that “the legislation, which forms part of the government’s strategy to tackle obesity, aims to ensure people can make more informed, healthier choices when it comes to eating food out or ordering takeaways. Displaying calorie information may also encourage businesses to provide lower calorie options for their customers”.

“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,” Public Health Minister, Maggie Throup, noted. “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. As part of our efforts to tackle disparities and level up the nation’s health, these measures are an important building block to making it as easy as possible for people to make healthier food choices.”

In fact, on average we consume between a fifth and a quarter of our calories eating out or on the go, Key informed New Food. “This can sometimes make it difficult to monitor the calories that we’re eating,” she explained.   

“Tackling this health crisis is vital, so the government’s commitment to make large takeaway, café and restaurant chains calorie-label the food they sell is a welcome move towards reducing the rising levels of obesity in the UK,” added Bridget Turner, Director of Policy, Campaigns and Improvement at Diabetes UK.

A move to tackle obesity in the UK

It has been found that 28 percent of adults in England are obese, while a further 36 percent are overweight. This new legislation aims to address these rising numbers by helping people make more informed choices and opt for healthier meals, and many restaurants and businesses have welcomed the new regulation aiming to help tackle obesity.

“Giving our customers full transparency about our menu is incredibly important to us and we are always looking for ways to keep one step ahead,” said Hugo Engel, Head of Digital at LEON. “In the future, we see calorie and allergen labelling being just as important as being transparent about the environmental impact of our menu.”

“The health of adults and children has long been a hot topic with various tactics put in place over the years to reduce unhealthy eating, including restrictions on television advertising. However, with data now showing a staggering number of adults measuring as overweight or obese, the government is taking much-needed action on larger food businesses to ensure they play their part in supporting informed and smarter food choices,” commented George Macfie, Food Technical Manager at Bureau Veritas, a certification company that helps businesses prioritise the correct labelling of food to ensure full compliance.

He added that “food businesses have been focusing on processes to meet the requirements of other regulations such as  – the legislation governing allergy labelling of food – now the focus turns to calorie labelling”.

“This is a positive change in the provision of nutritional information which must be researched, planned for, and welcomed,” he continued. 

However, not everyone shares this view, with some fearing the regulation may have unintended consequences on those with eating disorders.

How calorie labelling may impact those with eating disorders

Between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, with it being more common among those aged between 16 and 40, according to Priory, an independent provider of behavioural care.

Beat, a UK charity helping those affected by eating disorders, conducted a survey of over 1,000 people with an existing or past eating disorder, or those caring for them. The study found that 93 percent felt the new regulation would have a negative or very negative impact on them.

Andrew Radford, Beat’s CEO, expressed the charity’s disappointment in parliament’s decision, stating that it had overlooked research showing the risk such labelling posed to those with eating disorders. However, he did add that “customers will have the option to request a menu without calorie information” and urged “restaurants, cafes and takeaways to ensure this is available”.

Reinforcing this, Wagamama CEO Thomas Heier told The Daily Mail that “after two years of working with our charity partners Young Minds, disordered eating for young people is something we’re acutely aware of. As calories become a legal necessity for all restaurants, we’ve decided to offer a non-calorie menu for guests suffering with a challenging relationship with food”.

Adding to this, Tom Quinn, Beat’s Director of External Affairs told New Food that there is “very limited evidence that the legislation will lead to changed eating habits among the general population.”

However, a survey by technology company, Vita Mojo in partnership with Kam Media, found that the regulation is likely to influence more than half of consumers’ choices when it comes to choosing what to eat (57 percent) and where they eat, with 43 percent of consumers saying they’d be more likely to select a restaurant with calorie labelling on the menu.

Quinn continued: “1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, and sadly we know that the pandemic has contributed to more people than ever before needing support for these serious mental illnesses.”

“Beat has continually asked the Government to consider the impact on people affected by eating disorders and to take an evidence-based approach when creating health policies. This should involve consulting eating disorder clinicians and experts by experience at every stage of the process.”

Obesity is a cause of concern in the UK, but so are eating disorders. Therefore, it is difficult to ensure a ‘one size fits all’ method when it comes to legislations on food and dining. Hopefully we’ll see restaurants making an effort – as Wagamama has – to cater for people on both sides of this divide.