Counting calories

08 May, 2009
Displaying calories on menus is the latest scheme being piloted by the FSA, and with a number of sandwich bars signed up already, Georgi Gyton looks at the impact it might have
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Earlier this month it was announced that 18 catering companies and restaurants, including the likes of Pret A Manger and Subway, are to display the calorie content of their products in-store. This move is the first of its kind and has been brought about through the joint efforts of the Foods Standards Agency (FSA) and the Department of Health. The aim is to help consumers make more informed choices about the food they buy, but will it affect consumers' purchasing decisions? And will other bakery retailers be getting involved?

Pret is trialling the scheme at its Victoria outlet on Wilton Road, London, with a view to rolling it out to 24 stores in May and June. The information will be displayed at point-of-choice on shelf markers on all items made on-site - sandwiches, baguettes, salads and wraps.

Jay Chapman, head of communications at Pret, says the chain was keen to work with the FSA when the subject of trialling this idea came up. "My personal view is that I'm not sure calories on their own are the right things to single out. High-calorie food isn't necessarily unhealthy as it depends what else you do in your life," she explains, but says it may extend that trial with additional values other than calories, depending on the level of customer interest. She admits, she's not sure the scheme will have a huge bearing on purchasing decisions, and says it's certainly not going to affect Pret's food development principles.

"Pret's philosophy on food is about looking at the total nutritional content and value of the entire product. Isolating calories doesn't give you the total picture about the product, but for the people who want the information, it's there," she says.

"Pret never has and never will be about number crunching. It has specific commitments to reduced sat fats and salt, but not for calories."

The FSA will be carrying out a full-scale independent research project to assess the scheme, both from the point of view of consumers, to see how it works for them, and from businesses, to see how they implemented it and how easy it was for them to operate, says John Cottrill, a spokesperson for the FSA.

The research is due to be carried out in the summer, with a final report expected in September/October. "The research is the next step and this will inform our thinking on the next stages, for example whether it gets rolled out further."

Subway is another chain that's volunteered as a guinea pig for the scheme. It launched its separate 'calorie menu' in seven outlets across the business during the end of April/beginning of May, which is displayed at point-of-order and shelf-edge, and simply lists the subs against their calorie count.

"We'll run the trial through to the end of June, which is when the independent research is due to be wrapped up," says a spokesperson for Subway. "We'll be very interested to hear what the results are, and what customers think of it, particularly as we already provide - since November 2008 - nutritional information which includes calories, salt, sat fat and sugar per serving, which is displayed at the front counter.

There are currently no craft bakeries signed up to the scheme, which is not surprising, as for bakeries that produce fresh sandwiches on-site, it would be a near impossible task to make accurate calorie information available.

Thomas Adams, MD of craft bakers Oliver Adams, based in Northamptonshire, says he thinks we are a long way off small independent bakers volunteering to make calorie information available. "It's all very well putting this kind of information on a sandwich that's been manufactured in a large factory where everything is weighed and measured, but that doesn't happen in a bakery shop like ours. Quite a lot of the time the customers will come in and want a bespoke sandwich, and if they say they want no spread or mayonnaise, it would all go out of the window," he says. "It would be exceedingly onerous." For an operation such as Oliver Adams he says it's just not feasible.

Scott Jefferson, customer and marketing director at Greggs told British Baker, the only reason it didn't put its hand up for the trial is because it's in the process of harmonising its range and wasn't in a position to volunteer. "However we fully support the FSA initiative and will fully support guidelines that come out of the trial," he explains.

The chain made commitments earlier in the year to provide nutritional information across its national sandwich and savoury range, and once the harmonisation of the range is in place, implementing calorie information at point-of -purchase will be "top of the list", says Jefferson.

Other companies, who are currently working with the FSA on 'healthy commitments' announced in March, have said that as yet, they have no plans to sign up to the calorie scheme.

Both Costa and Starbucks say they have no plans to introduce calorie information on their menu boards. However nutritional information is available and provided on their website.

Michele Young, retail and brands director at BB's Coffee and Muffins, says the combined fact that its products are made fresh on-site and that the firm tends to flex its menu to meet consumer demand, means it won't be introducing calories on menus either.

"We've looked at this and realised that at the moment it's just not cost-effective to be producing the extra literature. We do sometimes get enquiries on this sort of issue and we furnish all our franchise partners with nutritional information, but for the time being we have no plans to incorporate calorie information," says Young. "However it's something we'll look at, as it moves progressively forward, and I think the other caterers involved will certainly set the benchmark for the industry."

The feelings of the industry appear to be that those who have volunteered for the scheme are not worried about how customers will react on discovering how many calories are in their meatball sub, and others can't justify the extra cost involved in calorie counts unless they have too.

As the scheme is voluntary, it appears bakery retailers need not panic about its impact on the wider business, and consumers are likely to take it with a very small pinch of salt.

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=== The lowdown on the calorie trial ===

FSA and Department of Health targets:

To help consumers make healthier choices, with the aim of cutting obesity levels. By June, the FSA hopes to have 450 food outlets introducing calorie information across the country

Those involved:

18 catering companies including: Pret A Manger, Subway, Sainbury's, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer's cafés

How the trial will be assessed:

With an independent research programme carried out over the summer. A full report is expected in the autumn

For more information visit www.food.gov.uk





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