Nutrition labelling on the menu

Do you want to know how many calories are in that tasty-looking muffin before you buy it? You may soon have no choice, says Sue.

CappuccinoYou've just ordered a cappuccino and while you wait for the barista to make it, your eyes are drawn to the cakes and pastries... You're just about to indulge, when you notice on the price tag that the almond croissant contains 350 calories and even the 'skinny' muffin is 500 calories. You decide to wait until lunch.

New plans from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) for nutrition labelling in restaurants could soon be helping you to make healthier choices when eating out. An initial voluntary trial offering calorie counts is due to start this summer with a small selection of companies. Pizza Hut and Subway have been the first two to sign up; others have yet to be confirmed.

This new scheme is designed to make us more aware of what we're eating in everyday restaurants, pubs, coffee Coffee shopshops, sandwich bars and takeaways (not in your local Gordon Ramsay). The calories in a dish will be posted next to the name of it and the price, not just on the company website. As part of the drive to reduce obesity, the desired effect is two-fold - that people will choose more wisely and that outlets will offer healthier options.

New York City has pioneered this radical way of making people think twice about what they choose when eating out. Since May last year, chains with more than 15 outlets nationwide have been legally required to label the calorie content of dishes. Early reports by health officials estimate people consume on average 50-100 calories less each time they buy a meal out, while news reports tell of people being shocked by the calorie count of what they were buying, changing their bad snacking habits and choosing the smallest portions.

Tape measureConsumer research in the UK has made the FSA confident that people want the information here too. The impact could be significant. One in six meals are eaten out, and they contribute nearly a quarter of our total energy intake. Most people, though, are unaware of the amount of calories in the food, and similar-sounding choices can hit you with wildly varying amounts of calories. Even obesity nutritionists find it hard to judge the calorie content of dishes from the description on the menu. A study by the Food Commission tested some experts and asked them to judge which menu options contained the most calories. None of them got all five questions right and only a quarter answered more than two correctly. 

So, are you looking forward to getting the information to help you choose your next lunch more wisely and to put the brakes on your little indulgent moments? Or do you want to order your double-chocolate muffin without the guilt-trip?