Experts have attacked the calorie-counting logic ­underpinning the government's Responsibility Deal.

This week, the Department of Health finally unveiled the pledges food and drink retailers and manufacturers would be encouraged to sign to promote healthier lifestyles.

The first of its three food pledges focused on out-of-home calorie labels, asking partners to commit to calorie information on food and non-alcoholic drink out-of-home from 1 September. Pizza Hut, Compass Group, KFC and McDonald's are among the initial signatories.

Calorie information would be provided per portion/item/meal, rather than per 100g. Future work would seek cross-sector commitments to help people cut calorie intake and control weight.

However, Verner Wheelock, who offers training and consultancy to food companies in safety and nutrition, said calorie-counting was "oversimplistic" and urged industry to challenge the accepted view that fats, especially saturated fats, were "bad".

The real problem, he argued, was refined carbohydrates. "It depends where the calories come from," he said. "By reducing calories and fat, people inevitably increase the proportion of refined carbohydrates in their diet and there is increasing evidence to show this may be a major contributor to obesity."

Focusing on calories isn't necessarily bad, said Bryan Urbick, CEO of consumer research agency Consumer Knowledge Centre, but nor was it a long-term solution. He pointed to the new approach by WeightWatchers as more constructive. "It encourages consumers to opt for calories from certain categories over others. Teaching people about food is good and keeping enjoyment in food will be needed to make this work."

Susan Jebb, chairwoman of the Food Network, which developed the pledges, defended the use of calories as an easy-to-follow shorthand for weight management. "People are eating too many calories and that means businesses are selling too many calories for people's needs," she said.

Read more
Big deal? The pledges that might make Brits healthier (19 March 2011)