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Mandatory calorie labelling on menus is a step in the right direction but not a panacea, researchers say. 

On 6 April 2022, the Calorie Labelling (Out of Home Sector) Regulations came into effect in England. This means that all restaurants, cafes, and takeaways with 250 employees or more now have to routinely provide calorie information on menus and food displays (including online menus). 

With up to a quarter of adult calories consumed out of the home, the new regulations aim to help consumers make healthier decisions, besides encourage businesses to reformulate the food and drink they offer to provide lower calorie options. Evidence from the USA, where calorie labelling in large chains has been mandatory since 2018, indicates that this has had a positive impact on both calories purchased and the number of calories in food items for sale. 

In an editorial published today in The BMJ, Oxford Population Health researchers describe the strengths and limitations of calorie labelling regulations as a strategy to combat obesity. They propose that population-level approaches, such as calorie labelling, are likely to be more effective at reducing the overall burden of obesity than policies that solely target high-risk individuals, particularly if they require little effort or agency on the part of consumers. 

Dr Asha Kaur, lead author of the editorial, said: ‘Compulsory calorie labelling for foods eaten out of home has both high- and low-agency mechanisms of action. Low-agency benefits occur through menu reformulation, with higher-agency benefits through individuals reading the calorie label, interpreting the information, and actively changing their menu choice.’ 

‘If the Government is serious about tackling obesity it needs a multifaceted, cross-Government approach that encompasses both individual-level approaches for high-risk individuals coupled with an increased emphasis on more population-level, low-agency policies.’ 

However, compulsory calorie labelling is not a panacea, and like all health interventions is likely to have more benefits in some socio-economic groups than others. Data from the USA, for instance, indicates that calorie labelling policies may lead to more sustained dietary changes among people from higher socioeconomic groups. 

Interventions can also have side effects.  There are concerns that calorie labelling on menus could potentially have negative impacts for people with eating disorders. ‘Whilst there is limited evidence of any such harm from other countries that have implemented calorie labelling, potential adverse effects should be monitored closely as the policy is rolled out’ Asha recommended. 

The researchers also discuss how labelling only calories could miss an opportunity to give consumers more information about the overall nutritional content of the food product/meal (including levels of saturated fat, salt and sugar), and even its environmental impacts. 

Professor Mike Rayner, a co-author for the editorial, said: ‘Calorie labelling on menus needs to be seen as just one part of a much broader approach to reshape the food system. The Government’s current obesity strategy does include other population-level policies, such as banning advertisements for unhealthy food before 9 pm on television and at all times online, and ending multi-buy offers in large retail outlets. But these need to be much more ambitious if the problem of unhealthy and unsustainable diets in the UK is to be tackled effectively.’ 

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