Displaying calories on menus: yay or nay?

We investigate the benefits and shortfalls of displaying the calories each dish contains on restaurant menus

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Last May, Dubai Municipality announced that all restaurants must display the calorie content of their dishes by January 2020, as part of a drive to improve the health of the emirate. The ruling was meant to encourage eateries to provide more nutritious options, and give consumers the ability to choose food that suits their health status. While the official ­roll-out has been pushed back for now, the question remains: does displaying the calories of a dish on the menus of fast-food, healthy-­eating and fine-dining outlets alike serve to empower or guilt patrons, and how helpful is that number, anyway?

Enabling foodies to make an informed choice

"It boils down to transparency," says head chef Benjamin Wan of Coya. The Latin-­American restaurant reprinted the menus at its Abu Dhabi and Dubai branches from January to include each dish's calorie count. A mushroom ceviche, for example, has 84 calories, while one with swordfish and coconut milk has 423, and the restaurant's signature sea bass and rice dish, arroz Nikkei, clocks in at 1,070 calories.

Ingredients such as almonds and avocados are high in calories, but healthy nevertheless

“It’s not about sending anyone on a guilt trip, because food is so personal, but rather about educating guests and enabling them to make a more informed choice,” says Wan. He also encourages consumers to raise any nutritional concerns they may have, and ask the waitstaff, managers and chefs about the contents of and cooking techniques behind their food. “We are all becoming more conscious and concerned about what we put in our body, and I believe counting calories is a big part of that,” he says.  

Calorie content not an indication of nutrition value

It’s not really, though, argues Lynne Bellinger, director of F&B development at Marriott International MEA. “Sure, some conscious consumers want to know what they are eating exactly, but a high or low calorie count does not ­intimate whether a dish is healthy or not. Ingredients such as almonds and avocados are high in calories, but healthy nevertheless.”

Bellinger suggests some better ways to do it would be to consecrate a page of the menu to healthy options, dishes under 500 calories, say, or to indicate if a dish fits with a Keto, Paleo, low-carb or gluten-free plan, or then to note the amount of sodium, carbohydrate, fibre and other nutrients contained within the dish.     

“If a law were to be passed about displaying calories, regulating it would be problematic,” she adds. “Will the government do spot checks? How will they gauge that the listed calories are even accurate? Most kitchens are not automated or have systems measuring out every single ingredient; it’s more personalised. And what happens during a buffet – the calories within a mixed bread basket alone would be a nightmare to calculate. Another issue is the waste, cost and manpower that reprinting physical menus would involve. So it’s a complex procedure all around.”

Wan notes that Coya, like many other restaurants, reprints its menus seasonally anyway. “We change our offerings four times a year, adding new dishes, and taking out unpopular or unavailable ones. Of course, recipes are created all the time, but we restrict changing the menu more often to minimise wastage and co-­ordinate introducing new recipes with the reprinting. So it’s not a big job to tack on a few extra numbers. As for online menus, those can be changed in a second.”   

The chef also credit his ­diners as being more discerning. “Who does not know that an avocado is high in calories, but also healthy? We are all more informed about nutrition these days and can apply our knowledge when choosing a meal. And if guests are unsure, they can always ask the team to justify why a certain dish is high in calories. ­Sharing more information is never a bad thing.”  

Don't get carried away with only the numbers; also factor in the nutrient profile of the food you eat

Another argument is the need for calorie counts on the menus of fine-dining establishments (versus only fast-food joints). Wan and team obviously believe education is key, but Bellinger believes that this may take away the pleasure from what’s a one-off dining ­experience for most. “Hotels serve freshly cooked meals with fresh ingredients anyway, so already they are a lot ­healthier than fast-food ­offerings or ready-made ­packets from the supermarket that, of course, should come with all the labels.”

Importance of labelling food

Nicola Lener, ambassador of Italy to the UAE, was in Dubai on January 30 for a discussion on the importance of informative labelling, organised by the Embassy of Italy to the UAE and the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology (Esma). Lener knows first-hand how ­important yet how difficult a single system can be to implement. "As of now, there is no consensus ­internationally on the ­guidelines all countries must follow to inform consumers about the nutritional information contained within single food products.

“However, much has to be done by authorities to educate consumers without ­demonising any specific food,” he says. “At the same time, consumers need to educate themselves to read labels and understand food groups. For example, [because of its high calorific value] I would not drink a whole glass of olive oil, but I would still use it to season my salad.

“Positive nutrition and ­informative labelling aside, putting the number of calories on an item is definitely ­important in reference to the overall amount of daily calories each person chooses to or has been told to consume,” adds Lener.   

One solution – especially if it's decreed that restaurant menus have to be reprinted, anyway – could be to include both number of calories and nutrient information. Costa's 4u healthy food range takes a step in this direction by enlisting Dubai nutritionist Mitun De Sarkar. The salads, wraps, sandwiches and smoothies are packed with healthy carbs, grains, proteins and vitamins, and each comes with a stamp of approval from the nutrition expert, who created and verified the menu.  

Sarkar labels the calorie-­displaying drive as a “very good initiative”, but adds that calories are just numbers. “For example, you can have one burger, two fries, a soda and a doughnut, and that’s your daily calorie requirement shot. On the other hand, some ­nutritious food can also be high in calories – think quinoa, salmon and coconut oil. So don’t get carried away with only the numbers; also factor in the nutrient profile of the food you eat. Educate yourself or turn to a nutritionist to know more about carbs, added sugar, sodium, saturated fat and so on, so you can read labels and decide what you need and what is good for you.”  

Do the math 

Once you do the math based on your age, gender, wellness goals and general health, you can choose food as per your ­requirements. “On an average, a person needs 2,300mg ­sodium per day, but one packet of crisps may have 2,000mg. So if you are watching your sodium because of high blood pressure or cardiovascular issues, think about what you are going to eat for the rest of the day that only has 300mg – and then keep that bag of crisps aside,” says Sarkar.  

Dubai nutritionist Mitun De Sarkar helped create Costa's healthy 4u range 

"Sugar is another one to watch," she adds. "Aim for less than 10 per cent of your total calorie count to come from added sugar, so 200 calories for a diet of, say, 1,200. The same goes for saturated fat or trans fat, which is bad because it increases cholesterol. So these are the guidelines you can set for yourself or that your nutritionist can set for you. The menu I designed for Costa works around these guidelines and good nutrients because I believe many health issues can be avoided or resolved with food rather than medicine."  

Having said that, Sarkar believes guilt is never good. "Follow the 80:20 approach. Lead a healthy life, make the right choices and pick up clean food 80 per cent of the time; and if something 'unhealthy' makes you happy or lifts your spirits, go for it once in a while.

"Above all, let calorie and other nutritional information empower you instead of ­making you feel guilty. ­Everything these days has become a calculation, but actually ­nourishment and happiness are both the roles of food. If you are eating a piece of cake and feeling bad with each bite, you are ­harming yourself more. Let calorie counts on menus help you to make better decisions or then stick to the one you've made to eat what you want; you can always work on it later."