The Victorian state government’s fast food menu labelling announcement is a step in the right direction for obesity prevention. Sure, it’s the not the magic bullet that alone will turn the tide on one of Australia’s biggest health crises, but it’s the first serious step we’ve seen a government take on prevention, and it has been shown to have an impact on what people consume.

In New York, where fast food outlet menus must display calorie counts, people have been choosing products with lower energy.

Now Victorian Premier John Brumby has announced the introduction of a similar scheme: fast food chains (with more than 50 outlets in Victoria or more than 200 nationally) will be required to display kilojoules on menus by 2012.

Menu disclosure makes sense on several  levels.

People are increasingly eating outside of the home, with a large proportion of these meals (44%) being fast food.  To put this in context, KFC has two million visits per week Australia-wide — that’s more than 100 million per year.

Fast food is usually energy dense and sold in large serving sizes. We also know that people substantially underestimate the energy content of this food. If you do want to find out more about what is in the food, this is often hard to find, hard to interpret and in many cases tucked away on company websites, or only available to view in stores on request.

If the onus is on the individual to make better choices, then information is needed to empower them to do this. We know that 87% of Australian consumers are in favour of chains listing nutritional information on menu boards.

For example, at present you would have little idea that the low-fat smoothie you just ordered as a snack is a nearly a quarter of your daily kilojoule intake. Nor can you make an informed choice between a burger and salad. Some of the highest kilojoule products have names such as Blueberry Blast, Garden Goodness and Green Tea Venti. While some of these products contain valuable nutrients, few people would realise there’s less than 100 kilojoules difference between a Big Mac and the McDonald’s Crispy Chicken Caesar Salad.

Research has also found that providing this information can result in people ordering lower energy foods and can have a positive effect on what they eat for the rest of the day. There is also evidence that parents shown this information order fast food with fewer calories for their children.

The next logical step in menu labelling reform is traffic light labelling, which would colour code foods as red, orange or green based on whether levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt are high, medium or low, enabling consumers to sort the fat from the fiction at a glance.  There is also high public support for this type of disclosure.

The Victorian example is now being considered by other states. While the Brumby government should be congratulated on taking the lead, a national approach is needed. We hope that the COAG national labelling review will go further and recommended traffic light labelling on fast food menus so that all Australians will be empowered to make healthier choices.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey