Nutritional information on menus shames firms into providing healthier food, Cambridge study finds

Forcing restaurants to put nutritional information on their menus could slash fat and salt from meals, a study suggests,  

Researchers at the University of Cambridge looked at 100 of the most popular restaurants in Britain and compared 10,000 menu items to come to the conclusion.

They found chains that had nutrition information on their menus served food that had 45 per cent less fat and 60 per cent less salt on average.

Among the restaurants which advertised this information were McDonald’s, KFC, Wetherspoons, Costa Coffee and Greggs. 

Researchers say that having the information in store shamed chains into making their meals healthier.  

Out of the entire 100-restaurant list, just 14 advertised the information in store on their menus.  

Food at McDonald’s is now healthier than many popular chains, a shocking report by Cambridge University suggests. An average meal at McDonald’s has an average fat content of 11.31g and 0.9g of salt

A standard meal at KFC, which provides nutritional information in its stores, has 2.1g of salt and 25.72g of fat

A standard meal at KFC, which provides nutritional information in its stores, has 2.1g of salt and 25.72g of fat

Researcher Dolly Theis said: ‘This is the first study to look at differences in nutritional content of food from restaurants with and without menu labelling in the UK.

‘It suggests that on the whole, restaurants who provide information on calories on menus also serve healthier food, in terms of fat and salt levels.’ 

‘As well as providing useful information for customers, mandatory menu labelling can incentivise restaurants to serve healthier food and drink.

‘This means things are made even easier for consumers to choose the healthier option.’

UK restaurants are not forced to label their menus by law, unlike in the US where it has become compulsory since March 2018.

The Government last year announced its intentions to introduce compulsory calorie labelling across England, in hope of tackling childhood obesity.

A consultation was launched last September as part of the Department of Health’s ambitious target of halving childhood obesity by 2030. 

NHS figures that show the proportion of children who are severely obese in England has risen by more than a third since 2007.

The average meal in Japanese restaurant Wagamama contains 20.7g of fat and 2.39g of salt

The average meal in Japanese restaurant Wagamama contains 20.7g of fat and 2.39g of salt

The Government is yet to publish the results of a public consultation on the plans – and an array of others – that ended in December.

The Treasury has pushed back on the calorie labelling plan, saying the costs for small food companies would be devastating.

It warned menus would need reprinting every time a recipe is changed. 

Tam Fry, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, told MailOnline: ‘Some restaurant chains are beginning to get the message that customers respond to healthier menus when they can readily see just how healthier they are. 

WHAT IS CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE? 

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a general term for conditions affecting the heart or blood vessels.

It’s usually associated with a build-up of fatty deposits inside the arteries, known as atherosclerosis. 

It can also be associated with damage to arteries in organs such as the brain, heart, kidneys and eyes.

CVD is one of the main causes of death and disability in the UK, and the cause of 31 per cent of deaths globally, statistics show.

There are many different types of CVD, but the four main types are coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral arterial disease and aortic diseases. 

Four out of five CVD deaths are due to heart attacks and strokes, according to WHO. 

More than 75 per cent of CVD deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries. 

The exact cause of CVD isn’t clear, but there are many risk factors. The main ones are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, too much alcohol, diabetes, inactivity and obesity.

The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to get CVD. The risk also increases with age – it is the most common in those over 50 – if you are a man, or if you are from a south Asian, African or Caribbean background.

It’s recommended to have a balanced diet, with the addition of regular exercise, to ensure a healthy heart, including enough fruit and vegetables and low levels of salt, sugar and fat.  

‘The restaurants that don’t follow this lead may well find that the government picks up on the outgoing Chief Medical Officer’s recent proposal that it should regulate the restaurant sector.

‘They might discover that is it better voluntarily to up their game now rather than being told to.’ 

Zoe Davies, a nutritionist at Action on Salt based at Queen Mary University of London, said the study reinforces the need for colour coded nutrition on labels.

She said at present this information was being ‘obscurely hidden on websites’. 

Ms Davies told MailOnline: ‘How is it fair that retailers and manufacturers are singled out to provide this information, yet it isn’t deemed important enough for the Out of Home sector to abide by, despite the decrease in home cooking and increase in eating out? 

‘We all deserve to know exactly what we are eating. The Health Minister, Matt Hancock MP needs to act now to resolve this unfair situation and make menu labelling mandatory.’  

The UK has seen a 35 per cent rise in the number of fast food restaurants since 2010, while one in four adults suffers from obesity according to the NHS.

Restaurant food and takeaways tend to be high in energy, fat, sugar and salt compared to food prepared at home.

Ms Theis, a PhD student at the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR) at Cambridge, said: ‘People want to know what they are eating and what it means for their health.

‘It’s important, especially in today’s world, when people want to eat on the go and so depend on these chains for healthy food options.’

Fellow researcher Dr Jean Adams added: ‘We found some restaurant items that hugely exceeded the daily recommended intake for energy, fats, sugar and salt.

‘More than a quarter of UK adults eat meals out at least once a week, so such large or nutritionally-imbalanced portions could contribute to poor dietary intake at a population level.’ 

‘We hope our research will help policy makers who wish to tackle some of the country’s most pressing health issues.’ 

Unhealthy eating is directly linked to a number of diseases including type 2 Diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Diabetes UK said its own research suggested 76 per cent of UK adults wanted to see calorie information on the menus of all cafes, restaurants and takeaways. 

Obesity is a key risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes and one in three children are overweight or obese, according to the charity.

Type 2 is preventable and reversible, yet the number of children and young people being treated has increased by nearly half in four years.

It added that without intervention, more than five million people in the UK will have the condition by 2025.  

WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count

• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain

• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on

• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options

• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)

• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts

• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day

• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day

Source: NHS Eatwell Guide