Help make better choices about what you eat. We want chain restaurants to be upfront about the nutritional content of their food - and for you to get involved...
Next time you're about to place your order at a restaurant, stop a moment. How much do you know really know about what's in your meal? The chances are that, unless you've done some advance research online, it won't be much more than the mouth-watering descriptions on the menu. You almost certainly won't get nutritional information printed simply and straightforwardly on the menu. Unlike food we buy in supermarkets, restaurants and fast-food outlets are not obliged to provide crucial details about fat content, salt levels or even whether there are controversial trans fats in your meal. So it's up to them what they tell us - and how they tell us, too. As a result, every time we buy a meal outside the home - and, say the Food Standards Agency (FSA), 42% of us do so at least once a week - we often have no real idea of what we're actually consuming.
What we do know is that today, in the UK, we're all eating far too much salt, sugar and saturated fat, and, quite frankly, it's killing us. About 3,500 deaths a year could be avoided, it's been estimated, if we could just cut our saturated fat intake back to the recommended 11% of our daily calorie intake. Overall, the Government estimates that if we stuck to its broad nutritional guidelines, 70,000 fewer people would die prematurely every year.
Real change is already well under way in the US, perhaps not surprisingly given the fact that its obesity crisis is even bigger than ours. In New York, as of last summer, all restaurant chains with more than 15 branches now have to include the calorie count of food on all menus. So shouldn't the same happen in the UK?
Bodies such as the Food Commission are very keen to see similar laws to those being passed in the US in place here. But while the Government is certainly aware of the issue, it's not yet prepared to intervene in a similar way. A report from the Cabinet Office last year recommended that the FSA work with food businesses to improve the information we get when we eat out. 'We believe that restaurants can go further to help us all make healthier choices and this would include making nutritional information more readily available to their customers,' agrees FSA Head Of Nutrition Rosemary Hignett. 'We're working with leading restaurant, pub and coffee-shop chains to develop a simple, effective system for providing nutritional information in their outlets.' At the moment, however, that system doesn't include putting nutritional information right where we need it - on the menu.
And for many of us, that's where we'd like it. According to an FSA study last year, 81% want to know what we're planning to put on our plates. We also want it as ready to hand as possible - at the moment, many restaurants do have the information, it's just tucked away in cyberspace where only 2% of us actually find it. What we need is the facts, staring us in the face, which is why Zest is appealing for restaurants and takeaways to clearly show us the many healthy choices they're already providing. 'If people are going to change their eating habits, they need clear information about what they're eating,' agrees Jeff Alder, who's the food policy expert at the consumer-rights body Consumer Focus.
Some are already starting to move in the right direction. Yo! Sushi has produced a booklet that not only gives the fat (including saturated fat), protein and calorie content of all the main items available, but also flags up where they sit on the Food Standards Agency's 'traffic light' labelling system used in supermarkets. So, for example, a portion of prawn katsu has 2.6g salt (just under half the recommended daily intake of 6g), whereas a tamago nigiri contains only 0.1g. However, that booklet is separate from the main menu, and you'll need to request it. Or, if you're very organised, you can download it from the website in advance. But, let's be honest, when it comes to meals in chain restaurants, they're often a spontaneous decision.
That's pretty well the top level of performance in the field at the moment. Similar companies, such as Itsu and Pret, both have nutritional leaflets online, or stocked separately from the main menu. Pub chain Wetherspoons, for instance, has some very detailed information available - but mainly, again, online. 'Our customers tell us that the website is a good place to find this information,' insists Eddie Gershon of Wetherspoons, 'and it enables them to plan ahead of a meal.' Still, you'd have to be very organised to know that just adding dressing and croutons to your Wetherspoons side salad will whack up the calorie content by 200 and the fat by 18g. 'It seems food companies will offer information about nutrition to consumers in any form other than posting it on menu boards right next to the price,' says Jessica Mitchell, director of The Food Commission.
So, next time you go into a chain restaurant, do a bit of research. Ask what information is available about the food on the menu. Then tell us about your experiences - the good and the bad.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to tell the people that matter how much we're really being told about what we're eating - and use this in our push for clearer information to create more informed decisions.
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