Leatherhead develops reduced fat, salt and sugar foods for manufacturers, so I know that the industry is health-conscious. But it struck me that the catering sector is miles behind manufacturers when it comes to salt, fat and sugar reduction and nutrient labelling of meals.
But I have some sympathy for the sector. For a small restaurant, the cost of testing all its meals for salt, fat, sugar and calories is prohibitively expensive. Large chains such as McDonalds have made excellent progress in nutritional labelling and offering healthier standardised menu choices. But economies of scale make the cost of analysis tiny compared with total turnover. An alternative is to calculate nutrition information using published nutrient data. But even this is quite complicated. Maybe the government should subsidise public analysts to test restaurant meals free of charge? This would support the public health agenda but be fairer on small businesses.
The average Briton eats one in every six meals out of home. Perhaps it is time to focus on this area, where fat, salt and sugar levels are often highest. Research by Which? shows that 63% of people want to know more about nutrients and calories in restaurant meals, so the argument that people don't want to be lectured when they are out to enjoy a meal doesn't wash. The same argument applies to the 50% of people that ignore labels on supermarket foods!
Increased exposure to healthy restaurant meals may also increase their popularity an added benefit. So I'm delighted that the latest FSA healthy eating initiatives include the catering sector!
Paul Berryman is chief executive of Leatherhead Food Research