menu card generic
For illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Pexels

What to many Britons used to appear a simple chicken curry lunch may now be rebranded - it’s now a third of their daily calorie allowance.

A new law ordering large English restaurant groups to include calorie counts on menus comes into force Wednesday. Food businesses with 250 or more employees now have to list the data for every dish and soft drink on the menu, alongside the statement that “adults need around 2,000 kcal a day.”

An updated menu at all-day restaurant group Caravan now includes the figures, with small plates ranging from 79 calories for edamame beans to 774 for croquettes. At Dishoom, a popular chain of Indian restaurants, clients can now see the calorie content of signature dishes such as chicken ruby, at 728 kcal.

The move is an attempt by the government to tackle obesity in the country, where almost two-thirds of adults, or 35 million people, are classified as overweight, according to the National Health Service. A third of children leaving primary school are considered in that category, with that figure rising in deprived areas.

The practice is already widespread in the US, where the Food and Drug Administration has required chains with 20 or more locations to label calories since 2018. US companies like McDonald’s Corp. and the UK’s J D Wetherspoon Plc have been among the early adopters, including counts on menus some years ago.

Heightened anxiety

But while research by the National Bureau of Economic Research has shown that the additional data does indeed make diners order lower-calorie meals, some experts argue counting isn’t indicative of nutritional value. Eating disorder charities such as Beat have also warned labelled menus may heighten the anxiety among people suffering from eating disorders.

“Requiring calorie counts on menus risks causing great distress for people suffering from or vulnerable to eating disorders,” Beat Chief Executive Officer Andrew Radford said. “Research shows that anti-obesity campaigns that focus on weight instead of health are counter-productive.”

In a survey conducted across Britain last year, 55% of respondents said calories on menus would be ineffective in tackling obesity.

Wagamama, an Asian-inspired restaurant chain owned by Restaurant Group Plc, says it will offer customers a “calorie-free version of their menu” for “guests suffering with a challenging relationship with food.” The company has also hired “anti-diet entrepreneur” Lucy Mountain for a new menu campaign promoting the idea of “true nourishment” rather than calorie counting.

Stifling creativity

Most restaurants in England won’t have to abide by the rules as the large majority employ fewer than 50 people. But that hasn’t stopped some executives worrying about the impact on consumer behavior.

“It’s a big stifler of creativity,” said Sam Ward, managing director of Umbel Group, which comes close to crossing the staff headcount threshold. “No one walks into a high-end restaurant to save on the calories. Fine dining is supposed to be a relief. A space to switch off.”