Saturday, 8 September 2018

Counting the calories

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.

49 comments:

  1. Portion size has got out of hand,especially with the provision of huge plates,that simply weren't around 25 years ago. It's very hard to impossible now not to overeat massively when out,unless you leave some.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed. I realise this post might seem to go against the grain of my usual opposition to the Nanny State, but if the drinks industry refused to declare alcoholic strengths and only served pints in pubs it would rightly be criticised. Leaving food pains me, but you're left with no alternative.

      Delete
    2. Chips are my main complaint. There seems to be no such thing as a small portion of chips, maybe a dozen big ones.

      And 2,500 kcal seems very low, especially for anyone who does even moderate exercise.

      Delete
    3. You don't see it so much these days, but pâté and toast was usually good for a laugh. You'd get four Venezuelan-postage-stamp-sized triangles of toast, made from a single slice cut twice diagonally, after it had been trimmed of its crusts and more. Then you'd get the pâté, about the size of half-a-pound of butter...

      Delete
    4. Reminds me of a comment from James Bond in one of the early books: "The problem with ordering caviar in these pretension little restaurants is that they never give you enough toast :-)

      Delete
    5. 2,500 calories for men (and 2,000 for women) is the official NHS recommendation.

      @Timbo - yes, I've experienced that absurd mismatch betwene the amount of pâté and the amount of toast. Rather like the Ploughman's where you get about 12oz of cheese and one tiny roll.

      Delete
  2. Until I read your reply I thought your blog had been hijacked.

    “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.”

    But that is not how things work is it?. We were warned of the dangers of smoking, sugary drinks and alcohol and look at the present restrictions and taxes. I am told to only drink 14 units a week and units are printed on the can/bottle. People ignored this “information” and now there are calls for minimum pricing that will put up prices for even moderate drinkers.

    I am not suggesting that I cannot have a desert if I choose the burger rather than the salad but they will try to restrict meal sizes; they have done it with confectionary and supermarket ready meals. They want to ban buy one get one free offers; when I bought mince or bacon like that I did not eat twice as much but put it in the freezer.

    I don’t usually eat breakfast or lunch, maybe unhealthy but it won’t change, so 1500 calorie burger is still far short of daily “allowance”.

    Of course it’s unhealthy to live on McDonalds everyday but you are handing over control. Give them an inch and they will take a mile (think they would prefer metric).

    David C Brown mentioned the 2,500 calorie recommendation (for men); think that has been lowered. But still less than the 2,800 calories that seemed to be under WW2 rationing.

    So really more complex than just calorie intake.

    PS The SI unit is actually the Joule named after a brewer.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No. Though Joules was also a brewer it was Joules the physicist after whom the unit was named. There are 4.184 Joules per kilo calorie as established by Count Rumford's famous cannon boring experiment.

      Delete
    2. He was only an amateur scientist but a good one; his income was as a brewer.

      Delete
  3. The Stafford Mudgie9 September 2018 at 01:53

    Although most brewers were extremely unwilling to release information on the alcoholic strength of beers the Northern Clubs Federation Brewery had been declaring the original Gravities of theirs way back in the 1970s.
    Yes, Wetherspoon’s declare the calorie content of their food but, being mostly frozen ‘ready meals’ to be microwaved, that’s as straightforward as Walkers declaring the calories on every packet of crisps. Proper Pubs offering freshly cooked Proper Meals would though have a problem in giving such information as, for example, the weight of chips on the plate can vary just as much as the bag of chips does from my local chip shops. Yet more regulations from the Nanny State could kill off the food side-line of many decent pubs making them unviable.
    My parents also lived through the Second World War and likewise I was brought up to finish everything on my plate, not being allowed to leave the table until I had.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can't believe that every serving of chips or onion rings or salad at 'spoons is identical but they are able to quote calories for them. I assume that they give worst case figures which is what providers of "proper" food will have to do

      Delete
    2. Nay, it's not regs from the Nanny State that'll do for them, our lad. It's seeing kitchen staff petting customers' dogs, and having them wandering all round you when you're trying to eat. My namesake is on the money at 'Spoons in that way. Good luck to him.

      Delete
    3. Yes mate, very true - Dogs in pubs are worse than kids.

      Delete
    4. As of tomorrow 'spoons are banning dogs from their establishments. Another good reason to patronise them.

      Delete
    5. It's an average/expectation based on the weight, not a 'worst case' - there's every chance your onion ring portion will contain more oil than usual and therefore more calories than advertised.

      Ironically, as with almost anything deep fried, the bigger your individual onion rings, the less calorific they will be. There is probably quite a lot of variance, even in Spoons where overall portion sizes are tightly controlled.

      It does make calorie counting an inexact science at best.

      Delete
    6. As I say, kevin. You can't demand higher levels of restraint on small humans, than you permit to animals in a pub. The two problems are tightly linked. If you deal properly with the second, then it at least gives you a sporting chance with the first.

      Delete
  4. I'm completely opposed to this - how long will it be before 'Nanny' says that no restaurant can offer a meal of more than, say, 1500 calories or fewer?

    Also, who is going to police it? Let's assume it'll be Trading Standards. If I was a small independent restaurateur I'd make an educated guess/calculation about the calorie count of a dish and then leave it up to the authorities to prove me wrong. That's not an easy task (unlike measuring pints and litres) and quite expensive I'd imagine.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is a very good point. I'm sure, sometime in the near future, restaurants will be "encouraged" to only serve meals containing no more than 1000 calories. It won't do much, as people will order more items if they don't feel satisfied. By the way Curm, when your mother went on about starving children in Africa, did you suggest she parcelled up the left-overs and posted them over there? I never leave food on my plate, and by the grace of God, I'm bang on the Government's ideal BMI.

      Delete
    2. Oh, I certainly did say that. What a little smartarse I was. Eventually they realised they were never going to succeed - my faddiness with food must have driven them to despair.

      Delete
  5. I can make my own mind up about how much I want to eat and so am not that interested in calorie information; however there is one vital piece of information I always try to find out about what I eat: whether or not the food is halal certified. A cheap meal in a pub or takeaway most likely contains halal meat, meaning that the animal has been tortured prior to its slaughter, and tortured for fun. Halal certification doesn’t just apply to meat though - more and more food brands are being halal certified; certification that involves a fee being paid by the food manufacturer (and therefore us, the customer) to the halal authority - and who knows where this money goes? Most likely into terrorism, intending to kill us, the customer. People should be made aware of this; it is a far more serious threat than alcoholic strength or calorie count. Look for the halal symbol on every product you buy: McCains oven chips has it, as does Warburtons and Kingsmill bread.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I could extend that topic, and we'd agree on plenty I'm sure Andy, but it's beyond the reach of this page, I'd say. Just one point though, when you see that symbol on bread and on other non-meat things, it has no more meaning than "kosher", say. It has no relevance to those interested in animal welfare.

      Delete
  6. I'd agree completely. Give people the info, let them choose. I'd also agree with portion size, at times; I'm big, and greedy. I'm 6'3" and nearly 18st, I need to lose weight, but also, despite being younger than Mudgie by around 10 years, was brought up to clear my plate, and feel bad if I leave food when eating out. In addition, my wife has a very small appetite, so at times I'll eat some of hers too :-/. This probably explains the 18st.

    I do try to do around 2500 calories, but obviously that doesn't work all the time; a few pints here and there, the odd takeaway. I exercise a bit, but not as much as I'd like to.

    One comment for Andy: the reason oven chips and bread are halal certified is because they don't contain animal products, not because they contain animal products that have been halal slughtered. Hundreds of products are halal for the simple reason they don't contain dead animal.

    I'm not convinced about the rest of your comments either, but I don't know enough to comment, and it's starting to verge on politics, which is a long way off-topic.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We've never met, but somehow I hadn't pictured you like that. As I've said on here in the past, in many ways I'm a very eccentric and picky eater - if I had a normal healthy appetite I would probably struggle with my weight too.

      The objection to this is surely that it poses practical problems for small and independent businesses, not that calorie labelling is a bad idea in itself. If it was easy, it would be a no-brainer. And it can't be denied that there is a widespread problem of portion size inflation.

      Delete
    2. Yes, it will be difficult for small, independent businesses. I think there would need to be a good window of approximation in order to allow them to publish calorie counts legally and properly without over-complicating things.

      I think the portion size is an arms-race kind of problem; you only have to see how extreme is has become in the US. One particular pub in Seahouses (The Bamburgh Castle) took a very good opportunity and offered several dishes on the menu in a smaller size, which was ideal for my wife and I.

      I'm also a bit of a picky eater in that I know what I like. Sadly, I like all the stuff that's bad for me and I snack too much :-)

      Delete
  7. Professor Pie-Tin9 September 2018 at 12:16

    I'm in favour of this idea - it's purely information which allows the user to make up their own mind.
    On my latest trip to the US I was eating in a restaurant which had calorific values against each dish and I was fascinated by just how many were contained in some dishes and the virtual non-existence of low-calorie options.
    But the Yanks are funny about food - as I pointed out to a Jabba the Hut barman who questioned whether my fifth pint was enough.
    Sadly the UK has already caught up with the US on widespread obesity and is rapidly closing the gap on morbid obesity.
    For the record I'm 6' and just under 16 stone.I rarely eat more than 1500 calories a day but double that at least with pints.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Like everything you consume there will be a point at which it becomes over indulgence, calorific values are all well and good, but most people surely must realise that eating too much, or eating a high proportion of fatty foods will have a negative impact on their health, in the same way as excessive drinking will on a long term basis.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Pedro Fill Your Boots10 September 2018 at 08:10

    Calorie counting was once the sole preserve of fatties. Now everyone is expected to count calories. Never been more labels on food yet never been more fat jabbas huffing their way to an early grave, diet coke in hand, expecting half your seat as well as their own.

    Bring back rationing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You might get it, some say, Pedro.

      Delete
  10. I took the family out for Sunday lunch yesterday. We all went for the carvery option where, whilst the meat was apportioned by the carver, the vegetables, gravy, sauces etc were on a “help yourself” basis. Needless to say we weren’t slow in piling our plates high but, as with most things in life, that was a conscious choice.

    Leaving the ethics of such a decision to one side for a moment, it’s all well and good having menus which show the calorific values for those meals which are portion-controlled, but nigh impossible when it’s a free for all.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Stafford Mudgie10 September 2018 at 18:49

      Paul,
      I've noticed that in some carveries the meat is very carefully apportioned by the carver, the plate having been put on some small scales.
      I must admit though to being very partial to roast potatoes, and roast parsnips, and piling them very high if they're properly cooked.

      Delete
    2. There's plenty of evidence that help yourself buffets actually reduce food consumption and wastage, because you don't take stuff you're not going to eat. When staying away from home I often look for a Chinese buffet as a dining option.

      Delete
    3. The Stafford Mudgie11 September 2018 at 17:29

      Yes, I can certainly believe they reduce wastage, for example just selecting the vegetable you like and having none of that badly cooked broccoli.

      Delete
    4. It's good to see Paul taking the undercooked broccoli issue currently raging in CAMRA circles seriously.

      Delete
    5. The Stafford Mudgie12 September 2018 at 10:40

      Well, we've got to sort out the broccoli before we can start discussing short measure or Autovacs.

      Delete
  11. Are "hospitality" meals a sufficiently significant part of the average persons diet to make this worthwhile?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. For a lot of people, yes. Buying five lunchtime meals a week while at work and having one takeaway and one weekend meal out each week is very common, I'd say. Many people will have far more out-of-home main meals. It's not just a once-a-month treat now.

      Delete
    2. The Stafford Mudgie11 September 2018 at 18:34

      Scarcely a once-a-year treat when I were a lad.

      Delete
    3. Five lunches out a week?. That is a bobby's job. A brought from home sandwich at my bench was the best I could hope for when I was working. :-)

      Delete
    4. The Stafford Mudgie12 September 2018 at 21:09

      I didn't have time even for a brought from home sandwich in my last job.

      Delete
    5. Did you not even get your statutory lunch break?

      Delete
    6. I seem to remember that the regs don't always apply to small businesses, plus you can always sign away your rights. They're not supposed to, but many firms make it clear that you're expected to do just that, love 'em.

      Delete
    7. The Stafford Mudgie14 September 2018 at 17:27

      Working more than eight hours the "statutory lunch break" should have been 20 minutes but that often wasn't possible with something to be done before 1pm, finishing before dark, etc.

      Delete
  12. But you're not a lad any longer. This is now, that was then.

    ReplyDelete
  13. The Stafford Mudgie12 September 2018 at 10:42

    Yes, but those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. First as tragedy then as farce.
      But, of course, history is bunk

      Delete
  14. The Stafford Mudgie13 September 2018 at 08:16

    Getting back to calories in pub meals I've been emailed a voucher for my nearby Marstons family dining pub offering a free drink on Sundays in September with any main meal or carvery.
    As it's the best beer in my four nearest pubs I might go anyway for a pint of Pedigree worth £3.10 which would mean I was paying £2.35, normally £5.45, for a "small carvery" which, with the plate not piled too high with roast potatoes, is as much as I can eat in one meal and would probably work out at about £1 for 500 calories.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Dogs vs children? Give me dogs anytime. At least they’re well behaved and quiet. I remember the CAMRA guide to child friendly pubs which was a surefire list of places to avoid. Publicans who appeared in it must have lost a fortune!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If someone produced a mirror image guide to child unfriendly pubs it would probably prove highly successful.

      Delete
    2. Pubs are intrinsically child-unfriendly. That is why so many of them screech there, with boredom, for hours, while their mothers knock back the Prosecco and/or their fathers the Stella. A list of those which recognise this simple fact would rightly be a best-seller as you say. However, for reasons which I won't repeat yet again, you have to start with dogs.

      Delete

Comments, especially on older posts, may require prior approval by the blog owner. See here for details of my comment policy.

Please register an account to comment. To combat persistent trolling, unregistered comments will probably be deleted unless I recognise the author.