Should restaurants be more transparent about ‘unhealthy’ dishes?

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From being able to order via an app to having “build-your-own” dishes, it’s no secret that restaurateurs are striving to offer a more bespoke and personalised experience for their new generation of discerning clientele.

Alongside this call for personalisation is the growing need to satisfy an array of health-driven dietary preferences, including gluten-free, low calorie and high protein diets. So with consumers being more wary about what they eat, should restaurants be doing more to ensure transparency of their dishes and ingredients?

I read an article on Metro recently that spoke about how a takeaway shop in Scotland is being criticised for selling a takeaway box of deep fried fish, sausages burgers, potatoes, onion rings and pizza all on a bed of chips for £9.99. Wash that down with a 2-litre bottle of Irn Bru that’s included in the deal and you’ve got yourself a whopping 5,000 calorie meal.

“I already put on 10 pounds looking at it” said one user on Twitter. “Heart attack in a box” said another.

But who is accountable here? The shop owner for facilitating the intake of this grossly excessive number of calories (and at an exceptionally cheap price) or is the consumer the one to blame for purchasing it in the first place?

I can imagine a lot of people would put the consumer at fault, after all, they didn’t have to buy it. But what if they were unaware of the calorie, salt and fat content of the box? This, in my opinion, puts the responsibility back onto the takeaway shop.

So the obvious solution is to make it compulsory for cafes and restaurants to label the calories in their dishes, right? After all, isn’t more transparency what our new health-conscious consumers want? MenuCalc even suggests that it could help build trust between restaurants and customers and also help with obesity, as consumers often underestimate the calorie content of their food.

Unfortunately, it may not be that simple says The BBC. Although the Department of Health wants to make labelling food a legal requirement for restaurants in order to combat obesity (particularly in children), the Treasury has warned that the costs involved with re-printing menus and complying with the policy could affect 26,000 small businesses, potentially leading to job cuts.

As well as added costs, I can see another big concern for businesses both big and small: could having the calorie, sugar and fat content of your dishes out in the open give your brand a bad name? And could this force restauranteurs to follow suit and only offer dishes that only have a healthy and wholesome list of ingredients?

Although this doesn’t seem like a bad thing, one big question this raises for me is whether or not this means restaurateurs would stop serving alcohol too. After all, we know how toxic alcohol is in large quantities on the human body and not to mention the lashings of hidden calories in each glass. Because of its high-calorie content and appetite-stimulating qualities, it’s no surprise that it’s one of the leading contributors to obesity in the UK. However, consumers seem to take more personal responsibility for the alcohol they consume rather than berating the restaurants for it not being a healthy option.

I personally think that restaurateurs could be a little more transparent about their dishes. After all, it’s not just calories that diners are concerned about. Many diners suffer from allergies and intolerances that mean they have special dietary requirements, so having this transparency would give consumers peace of mind and allow them to have more control when they eat out.

I do think it would be unfair on restaurants to be pressured into eradicating unhealthy dishes from their menu, but at the same time, I feel more should be done in order to make people aware of exactly what they are putting into their body. I believe strongly in personal choice and in my eyes, if the population was more informed about the food they eat, this can only be beneficial to the overall health and wellbeing of society.