On April 6, it came into force in the United Kingdom. the normative that forces restaurants and cafes to show the energy value and an image of all the dishes they have on offer. This regulation affects both physical establishments and those that offer their services online and “at home”, and is mandatory for companies with more than 250 employees, with some exceptions: charities, hospitals, residences for the elderly… The idea On paper, it couldn’t be simpler: imagine -it won’t cost you much effort- that there are a certain number of people who are especially concerned about their image or their health, and all this in relation to what they eat.
Under these premises, it is assumed that, if they are informed or warned about the calories that different products or dishes have, when it comes to taking care of the line, these people will choose those options that have fewer calories. This is the reason, dear friends, why no one consumes XXL chocolate palm trees, torreznos or mayonnaise anymore, being products whose consumption can only be observed in history books (ironic mode in full power). Let’s be serious: adding calories to what we are going to consume, in order to discourage consumption when it has many, seems like a very easy and very logical strategy. But it does not work, therefore, more than simple it is simple.
counting calories since 1890
We explain it in great detail in this post: counting calories, whether at home, at the supermarket, at the restaurant or at the gym, is as absurd as it is outdated. After all, the caloric paradigm dates back to the end of the 19th century and so we are, well into the 21st century, with important and growing problems related to obesity, but counting calories as if there were no tomorrow. More than 120 years believing that we have the solution and, at the same time, doing something that is useless. The same as rubbing your ears with wine, as my grandmother would say.
But the health authorities and also a certain food industry are still stubborn about it, and increasingly so. Thus, to the reality of the calories present in a mandatory way for nearly 20 years in food packaging, today offers us more and more examples of our labeling fever. We already know how that wise aphorism ends that says “when you see your neighbor’s beard cut…” and it is that, in Spain, bells are already beginning to be heard regarding this type of regulation within the framework of the Cardiovascular Health Strategy (ESCAV)which has generated so much commotion with not promoting wine on restaurant menus (remember that “do not promote” is not the same as “ban”). Be that as it may, the fact is that this obligation to capture the energy value of the dishes in a restaurant is not exactly new either.
It happened in 2008. The city of New York was the first that, at least with sufficient visibility, forced all those restaurants or food stalls with at least 15 points of sale in the city to offer, on the menu, the caloric value of each dish with its price. In 2013, the entire country joined the New York City initiative in reformulating its Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (something like “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”). Since its entry into force, all restaurants and vending machine companies with 20 or more establishments in the country have been required to include the calories in their products, dishes or recipes.
excitement versus reality
It is common for administrations and some scientific or health entities to show their enthusiasm at the prospect of implementing measures that reinforce what they themselves have believed since ancient times (or what they are interested in us believing). Thus, in an editorial published in the highly respectable British Medical Journal the measure recently approved in the United Kingdom is openly applauded. In the text you can read some expressions that do not leave too much room for doubt: “the regulation of calorie labeling should be applauded”; “a small step in the right direction”, etc.
In an exercise that is not very understandable, the same editorial uses some figures published in other studies in which the limited effectiveness of these measures is highlighted; the different validity of the same when observed in different socioeconomic groups and, what is more dangerous, the doubts that exist regarding the risks that can be generated in people with eating behavior disorders: we must be aware, many people they are sickly obsessed with counting calories.
Beyond the aforementioned editorial -which I do not quite understand since it seems to be written by someone with a split personality-, we do not have convincing data to support the measure that placing calories on restaurant plates is an effective measure to prevent or help to treat obesity. And that at the same time the risk-benefit balance is acceptable.
Several studies have examined the New York City initiative: the first of them concluded that indicating calories next to dishes had no impact on consumer behavior. Only one in seven indicated that they made use of the information and, in general, there was no significant change in the calories they consumed. Later studies obtained similar results since only a small part of the consumers took into account the information of the calories and, among them, the reduction of calories consumed was quantified in 11% less.
The poor accuracy of the data
I hope you don’t get a shock when you internalize what I’m going to tell you, but you should know that the food composition tables they fail more than a fair shotgun. Yes, food composition tables are those tools that inform us of the calories and nutritional value of food, and offer significant variability between them. Therefore, the nutritional results of the recipes calculated with these will also vary quite a bit. Don’t worry, don’t hyperventilate, but you should know that if you check the calories in two of these tables, for example, “eggplant”, “yogurt”, “cod” -or whatever one pleases- the data will not match. Sometimes it will be by a small margin, but in others, those differences will be significant.
To this lack of security in the value of calories, you have to add the picaresque: according to some studies, the energy value of the offer with fewer calories in a restaurant is usually deflated -in reality and on average they tend to indicate 100 kcal less than the real ones- and the dishes with more calories are usually inflated. Yes, it can be considered a strategy to further facilitate the choice of lower-calorie options, but it is still a misleading and anti-educational strategy.
To finish this section, has anyone ever wondered what kind of professionals will be the ones to obtain the calories from recipes and what tools will they use? I say this because, for example, the results of calories will be very different if laboratory tests are used from blood tests. calorimetry -something frankly improbable-, if the information provided by each of the ingredients of the recipe is used, or if it is calculated ex new from a table (and what table?) of food composition.
Fewer calories is not healthier
In an ideal world, even utopian, the suitability of a food would be measured by a number. The lower the better food and the higher the worse food. Ridiculous, right? Well, this is what is intended to be attributed to the calories in food. More calories, worse choice; fewer calories better choice. The galloping reductionism of calories can make us fall into important errors.
A plate of vegetables can have the same or more calories than a hamburger or a pizza from any franchise that we can imagine. What do we do, do we choose ultra-processed pizza because it has fewer calories? And so with many other examples: a glass of water can have the same calories (zero) as those of a soft drink with non-caloric sweeteners; an ultra-processed chocolate bar may have fewer calories than a piece of fruit; a handful of natural nuts more than an industrial pole; and so on. Measuring the suitability of a choice based solely on its calories could be a mistake that, far from being a solution, would deepen the problem of obesity. This data is one of the main weaknesses of the infamous Nutri-Score: that something has a lot of calories is per se and in its own right a negative quality. Anyway.
More risks than benefits?
Available evidence suggests reporting calories on a menu does not significantly alter people’s food choices. Well, let us now remember that after the scandal that the film super size me (2004) the multinational McDonalds was forced -by its own initiative- to place the caloric (and nutritional) value of all its offer in the individual placemats, a strategy that has later been replicated by similar chains of fast food. Therefore, focusing the message on caloric content may be a strategy that is not only ineffective but also detrimental to achieving change in the obesity epidemic. Have you ever stopped to think about how many consumers may be inclined to visit this type of establishment knowing that in them -or in those of their category- they will find the information to help them make “good” choices?
We also have a problem with the misunderstood compensation. Suppose we can show that a certain number of people pay attention to the calorie information and act accordingly at the moment of making the choice in the restaurant, can it be shown that they will not compensate or consume other foods or drinks with more calories justifying themselves? in which “they have behaved well”? And assuming all this calorie stuff worked out as planned, how could we show that reducing calories in a restaurant leads to weight loss and that the reduction is sustained over time?
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly. Beyond the questionable usefulness of the initiative, it is an evident lack of consideration regarding the negative implications it may have on eating disorders (EDs). Both among the general population, who may be induced by an incipient eating disorder, and among those who are trying to recover. The calorie obsession won’t help them at all. Therefore, as this post suggests After the implementation of this measure in Ontario in 2017, the result of this type of measure may be contrary to what in principle indicates our intuition. In light of the evidence of little to no benefit, and the assumed potential harm, nutrition labeling on menus based on indicating calories may be a more harmful public health initiative how beneficial