When, on the first Monday of the year, Health Minister Simon Harris asked food businesses to say what they thought about putting calories on menus, he might not have expected the extent of the food fight that followed.
The Restaurant Association of Ireland, chefs, and food writers united to condemn a measure to make calorie-labelling on restaurant menus obligatory.
Even health professionals were decidedly cool on a proposal that has been on the table since 2015 but now forms part of the national Obesity Policy and Action Plan 2016-2025.
The pros and cons of including calorie counts on restaurant menus is shaping up to be one of the hot topics of 2020. Here’s a flavour of what those against it had to say.
The Restaurant Association of Ireland was particularly robust in its opposition, describing the measure as nanny-statism at its best.
CEO Adrian Cummins said the association was outraged, claiming that enforcing calorie-count menus would cost the State tens of millions of euro to implement.
“Chefs will also be spending more and more time doing paperwork than in the kitchen, which will do nothing to make the career more appealing when we are facing a chef shortage,” he said.
The association called for education rather than legislation.
“We want to see home economics or food science mandatory in second-level and we need more comprehensive food education on the primary education syllabus,” the CEO said.
Chefs didn’t mince their words either.
The Michelin-starred chef at Liath in Blackrock, Co Dublin, Damien Grey, said he would pay a fine rather than put calories on the menu.
Chef Gaz Smith of Michael’s seafood and steak restaurant in Dublin said calorie-counting menus were just a box-ticking exercise that placed the burden on restaurants instead of placing food education at the feet of the Government.
Later, he posted on Twitter that he had changed his mind and had added calories to the menu.
After each entry on the menu, he wrote: “*More than 1 and less than 1,000,000 Calories*.”
This is going to get interesting.
But why is the Government even proposing the measure given the widespread opposition?
One reason, according to a Food Safety Authority of Ireland report in 2012, is that people are eating out more.
Eating in a restaurant or a café is no longer an occasional treat; in some cases, people are getting up to a quarter of their daily intake outside the home.
The report also quoted studies showing that people tend to eat fewer calories when they are listed on menus.
A large study (by Dumanovsky, 2011) found that the 15% of consumers who used calorie information bought 106 fewer calories than those who did not consult the calorie content.
Further research showed the reduction in calories was sustained over a long period.
But consultant dietician Aveen Bannon worries that calories on menus will target the wrong consumers.
While there is an obesity epidemic, there is also a worrying increase in those suffering from eating disorders.
“Often it is the people who don’t need to focus on calories who look at them. You don’t want 13- and 14-year-olds looking at menus and counting calories.
"It’s about trying to get the balance right,” she told Feelgood. Also, all calories are not created equal.
Aveen Bannon says it would be far more effective to label dishes according to their content — for example, high in fibre or sourced locally — and work on healthy portion sizes, which would not only benefit health, but reduce food waste.
And, she adds, calorie counts can sometimes have an adverse effect.
Once, while eating out with her husband, she was puzzled when he chose a sandwich from the menu with the highest calorie count.
When she asked him why, he said he was getting the best value for money!
Whatever happens, it seems certain that we’ll be hearing a lot more on the subject.
A Department of Health spokesperson told Feelgood there was still no timeframe for calorie-posting but that restaurants would be given “a substantial lead-in time” as well as guidance to allow them to prepare for the new law.