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Calories on Irish menus (and why I'm the only one who wants them)

Tuesday 7 February 2012
It's probably fair to say I didn't check the calories in this MASSIVE New York burrito...
Yesterday, a debate kicked off on Twitter. An actual, polite debate, I mean. Not a Twitter slagathon where everyone gets very cross for no real reason.

The fabulous folks over at Euro-Toques Ireland were letting everyone know about the new government initiative to put the calorie content of food choices on menus across Ireland.

"Hurrah!" I thought. That was the first, unedited thing that popped into my head. But I think it popped into mine alone.

I'm a calorie counter, and have been since my early teens. Not in a serious way, I must stress. I just seem to have a vague knowledge of the content of most foods, without putting too much thought into it.

I'm also a 'foodie' (though that word does make me shudder - is there not a better term we can come up with?) who adores cooking. And eating.

I don't think those two things necessarily conflict. I keep an eye on my weight, but I'm not a serial dieter. I've had close friends with severe eating disorders, and know that calorie counting can lead you down a bad path.

But I can't help looking around and thinking how weight is getting to be a bigger issue all the time. Kids are getting fatter. Adults are getting fatter. My friend's dog is getting fatter.

In my opinion, and the opinion of those cleverer than me, this all comes down to education. My education regarding food was dire in school. I think we had a look at that food pyramid once or twice, and that was it. We studied Food Technology, but learnt nothing at all. Our teacher wouldn't even sample what we produced in those classes. Oh, how I'd have loved proper cookery classes.

I think it's even worse nowadays. Not that I've been to that many secondary school classes, but from what I'm told there's barely any food education in place.

This isn't going to change overnight. Or any time soon, necessarily.

But can calorie information on menus provide any help at all? I think it can.

Of course, there's not much use having that information there if no one knows what it means. Calories aren't everything (which is why I would want sugar, salt and fat content too, but if I say that out loud I think I'd lose all my friends).

I just think of those trick foods, making people think they are a healthy option, while packing a hefty punch of bad fat. If people could see just how bad they really were, would they choose something else for their kids? Would they get something smaller, or make a more educated decision? I would really like to think so, but who knows?

I just spent 6 weeks in England, and noticed that a lot of places over there have started to put this information up. When I was last in America, almost all the places I went to had the calorie content on all their menus. I wonder what effect this has had? It would be great to see a study on the benefits (or otherwise) of this campaign.

I'm terrible at debating. As soon as I realise no one else is on my side, I panic and want to change teams. Which is what happened as soon as I realised that no one on Twitter wants this to happen. And they all have very good reasons, most of which hadn't occurred to me. The cost of this initiative on small restaurants, already struggling in this tricky climate. The practicalities of updating information on constantly changing menus (that's a really good point - imagine the extra work load for something with an excellent seasonal menu that changes from day to day). That education is where this money should be going, which is the only way of changing attitudes to food and healthy choices.

I can already feel myself being swayed.

What do you think?


  1. Donn't worry,I agree with you Nicola!! and I'm sure a lot of others do. Go to the RTE programme Operation Transformation for the 'Count me In' section where loads of people have signed up for calories to be shown in restaurants. There's no need to calorie count to the nth degree but a vaugue knowledge of how many cals we all need in a day and how much a plateful of your fav pizza contains might mean you would only eat 1/2 of it instead of scoffing the lot. No guarrentee there for me tho'!!

  2. As an enemy of 'numbers' in general, a calerie count wouldn't help me out much. I think an estimate of salt, fat etc content could be helpful though - they could do a red, orange and green colour wheel like you find on sainsburies packaging. There have been several times when I've picked up a food-stuff I thought fairly innocuous and then exclaimed "woah!" as I note all the red (for stop) on the colour coding.
    This could benefit by helping people choose what they are comfortable with eating, but also might encourage a shift in cooking practises. If everyone stopped choosing the high fat/salt whatever food, maybe some restaurants would stop loading their food with cream.

    My only reservation about all of this is of course the eating disorder angle. I too have known (and know) enough people who struggle with eating, self esteem and so on to worry that something like this would just add another layer of nightmare to their reality.

    It's a tricky one.

  3. I would love calorie content brought in! I suppose I can see the difficulties for restaurants if they're standalone places with menus that frequently change, but for chains of businesses that have set menus I think it should be done. Places like deli counters in Spars/Londis, Subways, McDonalds (already doing it), Milanos, Supermacs - I think they could definitely manage it.

    I wouldn't care so much to see this brought in for restaurants that are geared towards 'evening dining' because people tend to eat in them much more occasionally. But for your everyday places - where you pick up your lunch during the week or for fast food, it would be great because they make up the bulk of most people's eating out experiences. And the menus I'd say are full of shockers. The standard sandwich from a deli counter here is a foot long baguette. Even without the fillings that's got to be high on the calorie scale. Then add on butter, mayo, coleslaw etc... I would think if places had to show the calories involved they'd tone down the portion sizes, which would be a good thing.

    So yup, bring in the calorie counters I say!


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