It's been a week of grim news, and as I keenly scanned the BBC website for an uplifting tale, instead I can across this depressing headline: 'calorie counts on menus prompt healthy choices'.
This research comes from across the pond, where calorific information has been displayed on New York menus since 2008. The results of this survey do seem patchy, with the headline being just one conclusion from a scattered set of data points. Subway, for example, showed an increase in calorific intake by customers once the calorie information was displayed on menus. This is likely to be due to the fact that people have decided to eat twice the portion of a 'healthy' option that contains only 75% of the calories. The Yanks have few faults, but maths is clearly one of them, at least amongst Subway customers. UK restaurants have now begun to ape this trend of putting calorific information alongside food options, from the lowly (KFC and McDonald's) to the Michelin starred emporium of Alexis Gaultier in Soho. We ignore much of what is best about the US (cheap fuel, good service) and yet copy some of the worst (American gladiators); this is another fad that we would have done well to leave alone.
I am all for education regarding diet and healthy living, but this should come from parents and in Schools. It is important that children are made aware of what is meant by a healthy diet (to my mind there are no such things as 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' food items, seeing as no one food can supply all the nutrition that we need); it is important that we are aware of portion control (something which the Americans have lost sight of); it is important that we are aware of seasonality and its impact on lowering food miles; it is important that children are encouraged to eat a varied diet; it is important that they are able to cook.
Placing calorie information on menus seems to ignore the education side of food (as above), and instead looks to the strategy of trying to catch the horse's tail in the stable door. Healthy eating is not all about calories anyway; avocados are very calorific, and yet most people would say they are a 'healthy' option. Iceberg lettuce has virtually no calories, and yet it has no nutritional value either, and therefore can hardly be defined as being healthy. Education via calories might teach people how to become thin, but that's not the same thing as a good diet. Also, whatever Kate Moss thinks, some food really does taste far better than skinny feels (I'm looking at you, foie gras).
I don't think that calorie information works at either end of the gastronomic spectrum. Take Gaultier Soho, a fine dining restaurant (tasting menu £68 pp). How often are you likely to go to this restaurant, or any restaurant like it? Once a month, if that? This is an occasion restaurant for a partner's birthday, or a significant anniversary. This restaurant represents the opportunity to be decadent and hedonistic, to start a meal with champage and finish with a cognac over coffee. It's certainly not your everyday meal. Surely the last thing you want to do is to make meal choices based on calorie content? If anything, let's live like it's the last days of Rome, be perverse and have the most calorific choices on the menu. Part of the pleasure of fine dining is that it's totally out of the ordinary, a one-off treat, and one about which you shouldn't feel guilty. On another note, if you're eating at a place like this and you can't tell that the grilled fish is less likely to clog those arteries than the foie gras on brioche, you probably wasting your money as you're someone who eats only to live.
At the other end of the spectrum we have KFC and McDonalds. I'm sure that some people think the food here is great, but these people are mostly 12 or under, and as we've already discussed, it really is the parent's responsibility to educate children about food. For most of the rest of us, the output of McDonald's or KFC are pre-football food, hangover food, bored at the airport food; some don't touch them out of principle, but fast food provides an important option when needs must. I don't think anyone would argue that a standard meal of fried chicken/burger and chips is not brilliantly healthy, and it's not good to eat them too often; I hope I'm not overestimating the intelligence of the average Brit, but I think this should be a given. Placing the calorie information next to a Big Mac, informing us that it's got a lot of calories, shouldn't be a surprise, and neither should it put us off buying one. The introduction of the McGrapes and McCarrotsticks about ten years ago was truly bizarre; surely people go to McDonald's for only one thing: some greasy cheap food. If you wanted some grapes, just go and buy some from the nearest supermarket, though maybe I'm underestimating how ubiquitous McDonald's really is.
Food shouldn't really be complicated; people need only a few clear guidlines, and they can make their own choices from these. The '5 a day' for fruit and vegetables has passed into common parlance, though there's no real reason why it should have been 5, and not 4 or 6. If kids are given a varied and balanced diet, and taught how to cook a few simple dishes, people should be fine to make their own decisions. I'm glad that the research (despite the headline) showed no distinct pattern, and certainly didn't seem to support the need to expance the calorie information to all sorts of other menus. As with many things, it's the education, the pro-active strategy that tends to work, and as soon as one adopts the reactionary approach, we run the risk of having to deal with a nation of fatties, rather than ensuring that we don't produce these big units in the first place.