Sarah Willingham, the food and leisure industry entrepreneur who became a household name after appearing on BBC2’s The Restaurant, told delegates at a Unilever conference yesterday that the industry had a clear responsibility to provide nutritional information to diners, but that many consumers would find such data “too confusing”.
She suggested that restaurant chains and brands that had standardised menus already should contemplate offering diners a highlighted selection of low-calorie or healthier options as the first step toward encouraging consumers to eat better.
“This is a trend that is not going to go away, so to do nothing is not an option,” she said. “When trends like this come to the forefront it’s important to take it into context.
“The independent restaurants are not going to go through the huge task of breaking down dishes in terms of calorific value, salt and sugar, and even if they did put this information on the menu, are the consumers still going to get it?
“We can talk about giving them this information but if they don’t interpret it correctly it’s all quite pointless.”
She added: “Operators should have four lighter options or four lower fat options on their menu as the first step, and not go crazy trying to break it all down.”
Willingham spoke at the launch of Unilever Foodsolution’s World Menu Report 2011, which found that 73 per cent of UK consumers wanted to know more about what they are eating out of home.
But while 61 per cent said nutritional information would be a welcome addition to menus, over half of respondents said restaurants and operators should be responsible for providing the information.
Education is key
John Torode, Masterchef judge and owner of Smith’s of Smithfields in London, argued that while chefs and operators did have a responsibility to provide such information, the Government needed to provide the industry with the education and training needed to breakdown the calorific content of dishes first.
“The fact that the onus is put on me as an operator to take full responsibility for this is a bit much,” he said. “We make everything in house and live in a world where we change our menus with the seasons, but for me to start thinking about calorific content, salt and sugar, that’s something that’s quite difficult when I’m trained as a chef, not a nutritionist.
“People coming up through the ranks now will need a different skill set from what we were trained with. If the Government wants to pass laws like this they have to be able to put the training system in place to allow these people to do it properly.”
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley warned the industry last year that he would be prepared to make calorie labelling on menus compulsory, if the industry doesn’t respond to attempts to instate a voluntary system.
However a flash poll for MyVoucherCodes.co.uk in October showed that just under half of the respondents believed the move would “ruin” their restaurant experience.
Earlier this year the Conservative party announced plans to promote the display of consistent nutritional information in restaurants with more than 15 outlets.
All delegates at Unilever’s conference agreed that calorie labelling should be a move adopted only by large enough restaurant chains, as independents who regularly change their menus would struggle to cope.