"Royal Plans" for Menu Labeling and Food Initiatives – and What It Means for US Restaurants

"Royal Plans" for Menu Labeling and Food Initiatives – and What It Means for US Restaurants

By Anita Jones-Mueller, CEO of Healthy Dining

Also featured in Smartbrief for Restaurants: "Insights from the UK Calorie Reduction Summit – and What They Mean for US Restaurants" on August 15, 2018 
 

What an honor to be invited to speak at the United Kingdom’s Calorie Reduction Summit, held at the Royal Society in London! My role was to represent the USA by sharing insights on the eight-plus years of the menu labeling “journey” and the FDA’s 399 pages of rules for posting calories on menus with additional information available upon request. As well, I shared the good works of US restaurants that are participating in the HealthyDiningFinder program to ultimately contribute to a healthier America.
 
To get ready for the Summit, I dove into reading about the “world-leading” nutrition-focused “ambitions” and initiatives already in place. Wow! I found that the United Kingdom’s (UK) government is very serious about bringing healthy, long-term change for children and adults. In direct parallel with the US rates, nearly two-thirds of UK adults and one-third of children post-elementary school are obese or overweight.
 
Before I provide an overview of the Calorie Reduction Summit, let me give you a high-level summary of the healthful “ambitions” already in place (I like how they refer to these public health initiatives as “ambitions” – it conveys the passion that I experienced at the summit):
 
Just a few days prior to the Calorie Reduction Summit, the Public Health of England released a 33-page report,  “Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action, Chapter 2.” This report follows Chapter 1, released in 2016. The UK government states that obesity rates have doubled in the past two decades, and Britain is now the most obese nation in Western Europe. The health and economic burden of obesity is “immense, and left unchecked, it’s predicted to cripple public health services.” One month earlier, in May 2018, a separate report was issued: “Sugar Reduction and Wider Reformulation Programme: Report on Progress Towards the First 5% Reduction and Next Steps.
 
Prime Minister Theresa May emphasized in the Chapter 2 Childhood Obesity report that, “The health and well-being of our children critically determines their opportunities in life. Today, nothing threatens that more than childhood obesity.” The report states that the UK aims to “be the first country in the world to really do something about this,” with a “national ambition to halve childhood obesity rates by 2030 and significantly reduce the health inequities that persist.”
 
In the report, Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, explains the overall childhood obesity policy plan, which focuses on 1) empowering parents to make informed decisions about the food they are buying when eating out, 2) mitigating pester power by preventing stores from pushing unhealthy foods, and 3) protecting kids from food advertising.
 
The report states that the UK will “introduce legislation to mandate consistent calorie labelling for the out-of-home sector, (e.g., restaurants, cafes and takeaways) in England” with further direction by the end of 2018.
 
Secretary Hunt summarized in the report that, “I am heartened by the progress the food and drink industry has already made in reformulating products and reducing sugar in soft drinks. I am cheered by those forward thinking businesses taking action and want to make sure others follow their example. We will not shy away from further action if we do not see the progress we need to support parents … and protect children’s health now and in years to come.”
 
SOFT DRINK SUGAR LEVY:
In 2016, Public Health England (PHE) announced a sugar levy on soft drinks as a “key milestone in tackling childhood obesity.” By the time the levy was enacted in May 2018, already 50% of manufacturers, including Great Britain-based Lucozade Ribena Suntory, Irn Bru and Tesco, had voluntarily reduced the sugar content of drinks sold by the equivalent of 45 million kg of sugar per year, producing an 11% decrease in sugar and 6% decrease in calories. Additionally, a shift in sales towards products with sugar levels below five grams per 100 ml. occurred.  Soft drinks manufacturers who don’t reformulate will pay the levy, which amounts to 24 pounds per litre of drink if it contains eight grams of sugar per 100 millilitres or 18 pounds per litre of drink if it contains between five and eight grams of sugar per 100 millilitres. 
 
Public Health Minister Steve Brine MP was quoted: “Our teenagers consume nearly a bathtub of sugary drinks each year on average, fuelling a worrying obesity trend in this country. The Soft Drinks Industry Levy is a ground-breaking policy that will help to reduce sugar intake, whilst funding sports programmes and nutritious breakfast clubs for children.”
The sugar tax is expected to raise 240 million pounds each year (US equivalent = $306M). What happens if all beverage companies, such as Coca Cola and Pepsi, comply? The UK government seems willing to call it a success and continue to fund these important youth programs at the full sugar tax rate.

SUGAR REDUCTION IN FOOD PRODUCTS:
Manufacturers of food products were also challenged, though not with a levy, to voluntarily reduce levels of sugar by 20% by 2020, with a 5% reduction in the first year. The recommended strategies for reducing sugar are: : 1) reformulation to lower sugar levels, 2) reduction of portion size and/or 3) promoting a shift of consumer purchasing patterns towards lower/no added sugar products.
 
The results featured in the May 2018 Sugar Reduction report showed that:
  1. Across 8 of the 10 food categories, retailers and manufacturers achieved a 2% sugar reduction in the first year;
  2. Of the top 20 brands ranked by total sugar sales, 33% showed a decrease in sugar content; 56% showed no change, and 12% showed an increase in sugar levels.
 
The report states that, “…due to data limitations, it has not been possible to report on progress by the out-of-home sector (e.g., quick service restaurants, takeaway and meal delivery businesses) in the same way as for retailers and manufacturers…this should be included in the next report in 2019.” To emphasize: both the Sugar Reduction and Childhood Obesity reports signal that the next “ambitions” will focus on the restaurant sector and menu labeling. 
 
SODIUM AND SATURATED FAT REDUCTION:
Public Health England has also published targets for levels of sodium in food products and drinks with the understanding that “businesses are expected to work towards achieving these targets as part of the sugar reduction and wider reformulation programme. A saturated fat plan is anticipated later in 2018.
 
CALORIE SUMMIT – LONDON JUNE 26, 2018:
The first ever Calorie Reduction Summit in the UK included industry and retail speakers, academia, policymakers, public health and science and nutrition stakeholders to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by current developments in nutrition policy. UK-based representatives from Subway Restaurants and McDonald’s provided an overview of their healthful initiatives. 
 
I found the day absolutely fascinating. I was thrilled to be in the country from which my grandparents immigrated to the US – and I was thrilled to be listening to the same passion that my team and I have for transitioning the world as a healthier place to eat. I found the discussion items highly focused and well informed. The topics presented addressed issues such as:
  • Does the Childhood Obesity plan go far enough?
  • Can voluntary schemes ever achieve the level of change required to be impactful?
  • With a quarter of calories now coming from outside the home, how will changes be made in this notoriously challenging sector?
  • With industry looking to portion control as a key tactic, how do they “get it right” and avoid unintended consequences of consumers’ eating additional portions?
  • Is PHE’s 400-600-600 calorie messaging helpful or harmful? Does it over-emphasize quantity versus quality? Or normalize snacking? Does it present an opportunity to industry to signpost or launch new products with 100 calories max – or is 100 calories max achievable for only a handful of products?
  • How will industry balance its efforts between reformulation, portion control and shifting its marketing toward healthier lines and retain competitive advantage?
  • Is there appetite to ban up-sells/super-sizing and cap portion sizes to shift away from bucket-sized drinks and snacks?
  • Should on-the-menu labelling be mandated outside the home, as it is in the US? What can we learn from the US?
  • What are insights from the out-of-home sector on increasing momentum toward healthy eating and using it to leverage competitive advantage?
  • Since the out-of-home sector is a particularly challenging area, what is being achieved and what more can be done - what’s needed to catalyze change?
 
USA MENU LABELING & HEALTHFUL INITIATIVES:
My presentation covered the last three bullet points outlined above. I started out by showing a slideshow of CDC’s Obesity and Diabetes maps of the US. If you haven’t seen this one-minute slideshow, I would highly recommend it. It is shocking! You will need to click to download the PPTX. Then click Slide Show and watch how the US obesity and diabetes rates have grown state-by-state over the last 20+ years: Maps of trends in diabetes and obesity: PPTX
 
As far as menu labeling (or “labelling” in the UK), defined as providing a calorie count on menus, here are my recommendations:
 
  1. The obvious: it shouldn’t take 8 years or 399 pages of rules. In fact, there is growing demand for transparency, and more than ever before, restaurant customers want and need nutrition information. It would be best if restaurants were in control of the guest experience related to how they provide nutrition information to their guests.
  2. Think technology: When menu labeling was first being discussed in the US -- and even when it passed as a provision in the 2010 Healthcare Act, mobile and digital technology was in its infancy compared to today. Online and mobile ordering and payment are fast growing trends in the restaurant industry (worldwide), and it’s important to consider how this technology can also enhance public health.  
  3. Why just calories? Healthy eating is really about a lifestyle emphasizing high nutrient foods. A focus solely on calories on the menu may steer a consumer to a 500-calorie high saturated fat burger on a white refined bun instead of a 650-calorie salmon taco dish with fresh grilled vegetables. The latter is filled with high quality nutrients our bodies need. There is no reason to limit the information provided to restaurant diners – it should be easy to access and include sodium, carbohydrates, sugar, fiber, protein, fat, saturated fat and food allergens. This information can be easily can be accessed through mobile phones.
 
WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN FOR USA RESTAURANTS?
We are experiencing a huge paradigm shift – in our cultural values of food and in how technology guides our choices. Even though calorie counts on menus are in full force now for restaurant chains with 20 or more US locations, restaurants should not stop there. US consumers want to eat healthier and cleaner – they want a full spectrum of information about the food they eat. They want to track what they are eating and understand where the food comes from and how it affects the planet. Restaurants of all sizes and types can prosper by transitioning to a healthier way of creating and serving food.
 
It is Healthy Dining’s passion to partner with restaurants for a healthier America. We don’t need to wait for our government to further enact more legislation. US restaurants can be proactive and support their guests in finding menu items that meet their health and lifestyle preferences. Healthy Dining provides healthful strategy guidance, nutrient analysis and new MyMenu interactive technology to provide a personalized digital and mobile experience.
 
If you are a restaurant that wants to join us in a proactive way to give your guests the information they crave and help make the world a healthier place to eat, email me at Anita@HealthyDining.biz.
 
Anita Jones-Mueller, MPH, is CEO and founder of Healthy Dining. She is a nationally known public health nutrition expert and a market innovator, thought leader and strategist in the healthy eating landscape.  Healthy Dining is the most experienced restaurant nutrition services provider in the world, supporting restaurants of all kinds and sizes with a variety of nutrition-related services that include nutrient analysis, allergen and gluten identification, and validation of attributes such as “organic,” “clean,” “vegan,” and other terms. Healthy Dining recently launched a groundbreaking guest engagement technology system that enables restaurants to provide accurate, real-time digital nutrition data to guests. This new technology, MyMenu®, gives guests unprecedented personalization functionality to find menu items based on personal health needs and lifestyle preferences. MyMenu – accessed on the restaurant websites, mobile apps, and/or tablets and kiosks within the restaurant – is poised to revolutionize how guests choose restaurants and find menu items aligned with personal goals and preferences.