It’s been a big month of regulatory change for the food industry. Earlier this week, the plastic packaging tax came into force, and today calorie labelling has become a legal requirement on menus across restaurants, cafés, pubs and supermarkets as well as contract catering, domestic transport services and home delivery apps in England.

Under the new rules, businesses that employ at least 250 staff must display calorie counts “clearly and prominently” at the point of choice (usually the menu) with the statement that ‘adults need around 2,000 kcal a day’.

The measure is part of the government’s wider strategy to tackle obesity. “Our aim is to make it as easy as possible for people to make healthier food choices for themselves and their families, both in restaurants and at home,” said public health minister Jo Churchill when the new rules were announced in March 2021.

But doubts have already been raised over whether calorie labelling on menus will make much difference. Leon founder Henry Dimbleby, who heads up the government’s National Food Strategy, has been quoted as suggesting the move is a “small intervention” that won’t do much to control obesity.

Indeed, a recent study on the effectiveness of calorie labelling on menus in US fast food chains found that while a “small decrease in mean calories purchased per transaction” was observed after implementation, this reduction diminished over time.

Even if the policy does encourage people to choose lower-calorie options, many nutritional experts believe calorie counting is outdated and flawed, because it doesn’t take into account the nutritional value of different foods, or people’s individual metabolisms.

Effectiveness on tackling obesity aside, opponents to the new rules argue eating out is one of life’s rare luxuries and diners should be able to enjoy a burger without being forced to first digest the full implications of their choice on their waistlines.

For the 1.25 million people suffering from an eating disorder in the UK, calorie labelling could even cause serious harm, warns charity Beat Eating Disorders. It has been urging the government to drop the proposed rule change, warning calorie labelling on menus could “exacerbate the disordered thoughts and behaviours of people with eating disorders, and the potential for harm”.

Then there’s the timing. When the rules were announced last year, UK Hospitality urged the government to delay implementation, warning the additional costs threatened to “derail hospitality’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic”.

And while the pressures of the pandemic have since eased, rampant inflation and the Russia-Ukraine war are piling fresh cost and complexities on supply chains and adding to the cost of living crisis. 

Elsewhere, the government is moving to ease rules around labelling on food to enable businesses to source alternative ingredients to those in short supply. So it seems an odd time to impose new, costly labelling requirements on the sector.

With margins already seriously squeezed, there is the risk mandatory calorie labelling will just lead to higher prices for diners – at a time when discretionary spending is already coming under enormous pressure.

And that could have some unintended consequences. According to research from the SMASH app, healthier foods are already on average over 90% more expensive calorie-for-calorie than less healthy foods in major restaurant chains.

If this legislation does force restaurants and cafés to put their prices up across the board, there is a risk it will actually end up pricing some cash-strapped Brits out of healthy options and pushing them towards cheaper, less healthy food.

Because while Brits are increasingly concerned about their waistlines, we’ve seen time and time again that when the chips are down, the wallet wins out.