Technical recipe evaluation for the Northern Ireland pilot on calorie information in catering businesses

Last updated:
19 January 2015
The project aimed to provide support to companies taking part in the ‘Northern Ireland Calorie Labelling at point of choice pilot’ enabling nutritional analysis of their menus and to ensure accurate calorie figures are displayed.
Study duration: January 2011 to August 2013
Project code: FS411008
Contractor: University of Ulster

Background

Overweight and obesity are significant public health issues in the UK. With 20-25% average energy consumption obtained by food eaten outside of the home, caterers do have an important role in providing information to their customers. Information enables consumers to have an informed choice and encourage businesses to challenge the recipes behind their menu choices. The project has taken forward suggestions from the previous 2009 FSA evaluation with UK multiples. The display of calorie information is a priority with the Department of Health in England through the Responsibility Deal pledge and as a result a number of the UK multiples are displaying this information in outlets in Northern Ireland (NI).

This project has uniquely targeted small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and NI consumers. One of the main barriers noted in 2009 evaluation is the calculation and display of accurate calorie counts. To encourage SMEs to take part in the pilot, funding was provided to ensure that accurate calories were displayed and allow independent evaluation to take place. Knowledge gained and lessons learnt by the nutritionists were captured in a technical report and presented at a joint workshop targeted at caterers in May 2013.

Research Approach

In total, eight businesses were identified and agreed to take part in the six-month pilot, which was launched in April 2012. There is currently an independent evaluation on the practical implications for SMEs and initial consumer reactions to and understanding of calorie information. A number of UK multiples also took part in the evaluation, which enabled a comparison with the SMEs.

The ‘Out of Home Calorie Labelling’ pledge has resulted in a number of UK multiples displaying calories in their NI stores for consumers. The pilot encourages participation by SMEs , but also further supports the UK multiples as the consumers become more familiar and engaged with calorie labelling. The participating businesses had limited technical knowledge on nutrition and content of their menu choices. For the businesses, the display of calories was a challenge and without the provision of expert advice by nutritionists, the pilot would not have taken place.

Two higher education institutions (UU+ College of Agriculture, and Food and Rural Enterprise, CAFRE) provided expert assistance in the calculation of calories. Such assistance included one to one meetings with the businesses, including site visits, to obtain accurate information on ingredients used, kitchen practice, portion size and menu choices. Additional advice was provided on reformulation towards reducing the calorific value of menu choices.

Detailed information was provided to each business on the calories in each menu choice which allowed the accurate display of calories.

The lessons learnt were cascaded to businesses in a practical workshop in May 2013 with presentations by University of Ulster, Food Safety Authority, Ireland and a number of participating businesses. A practical toolkit was launched at this workshop and included in a report developed by University of Ulster. The report is an overview of the technical support for the nutrition analysis with the pilot businesses, capturing some of the challenges for the SME businesses and support provided and needed.

Results

The exercise of calculating calories with the eight participating small/medium sized caterers by nutritionists did highlight a number of practical considerations as part of a regional roll out with caterers. These considerations include the high level of detail required to calculate the calorie content of recipes and the development of a 16-step guide to assist caterers in future work. There is a need for an easy to use free database for calorie information of menu choices, training of the catering staff with limited or no nutrition knowledge in its use, in addition to readily–available access to assistance on the WISP database developed by the University of Ulster to increase confidence. Benefits of lists of suggested appropriate portion sizes and ranges of calorie content for foods commonly found in catering businesses. The continued collaboration between FSA and Food Safety Authority Ireland is to be encouraged, given the number of businesses that have franchises in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.