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We now take it for granted that the alcoholic strength of beers and other alcoholic drinks is declared on packaging and at point of sale. It’s hard to believe that, forty years ago, the brewers were extremely unwilling to release this information, and CAMRA paved the way in working out the original gravity of all the real ales in the country where the brewers were unwilling to divulge it themselves. The brewers’ argument was that people would judge beers purely on the basis of strength, but in reality were probably more worried about having it exposed just how weak many of their beers were. Experience has shown that the concern about “drinking on strength” was largely unfounded – people continue to choose beer of a wide range of strengths based on taste and occasion, and indeed in the current century the general trend has been towards lower strengths.
So, on the face of it, it would seem uncontroversial that we should be given the same information about the calorie content of the food we eat. This is already the case with pretty much all packaged food you buy in shops, but it doesn’t apply to fresh food or to most of the food sold for out-of-home eating in pubs, restaurants and cafes. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this, such as Wetherspoon’s, who also declare the calorie content of their alcoholic drinks.
So the government have now decided to put this into action. While I’ve been sceptical of many other so-called “health” initiatives, this can’t be criticised as an example of nannying, as all it is doing is to give people the information on which to make informed decisions. However, it poses a number of practical problems. Working out calorie content is by no means as straightforward as alcohol content, and the range of different food items is far greater. It’s likely to impose significant costs on small businesses, which may cause them to discontinue providing food at all, and also deter food businesses of all sizes from offering one-off daily specials. So inevitably there are calls for smaller business to be excluded.
However, simply exempting them seems like something of a cop-out that will undermine the objectives of the scheme. I’m no expert in the field, but wouldn’t it be possible to come up with something like providing official indicative figures for a range of food items that could be used if providers aren’t in a position to make a detailed analysis? Even if somewhat inaccurate, that would surely be better than nothing. An ounce of fried rice is an ounce of fried rice, regardless of which venue is serving it. The industry should be looking at realistic solutions rather than pooh-poohing the whole idea.
It can’t be denied that there is a serious issue here. Eating out of the house has boomed in recent decades, and accounts for an ever-growing proportion of our food intake. Not only do many businesses provide no calorie information, but they also offer standard portions that are way above what is regarded as compatible with a healthy diet. The typical portions served up by takeaways are easily half as much again as what a normal person would regard as a filling meal, and could often provide two slightly frugal meals. Even when calories are declared, the size of meals is often pretty overfacing. For example, Wetherspoon’s Ultimate Burger with chips is 1516 calories, while their Pepperoni Pizza is 1170, when the recommended daily intake for an adult male is 2,500. That may be OK for an occasional treat, but if you’re eating meals of that kind on a regular basis you’re going to have a problem.
Like many of those whose parents lived through the Second World War, I was brought up to finish everything on my plate, accompanied by exhortations to think of the starving children in Africa. I still feel a touch of guilt about leaving food on the plate in pubs and restaurants, and see it as something of an insult to the chef. Yet I find myself increasingly ending up leaving a quarter or a third of a meal uneaten, and having to apologise, saying “The food was fine, it was just a very big portion.” I still gag at the thought of the pub offering a “belly-busting pound of chips” on its menu. Calorie labelling would at least expose the true size of portions. And the risk is that, if the food industry doesn’t act to provide information and offer the choice of smaller portions, the government will end up enforcing them.