Jul 2, 2010

Brumby’s new fast food menu labelling to sort fat from fiction

The Victorian state government’s fast food menu labelling announcement is a step in the right direction for obesity prevention, writes Jane Martin, senior policy adviser of the Obesity Policy Coalition.

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.

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6 thoughts on “Brumby’s new fast food menu labelling to sort fat from fiction

  1. Dikkii Webb

    Why stop at fast food outlets? Why not go the whole hog and have it specified for anywhere where cash changes hands for food.

    I’d love to see highbrow reactions to, say the Flower Drum or Vue de Monde being made to put this on their menus.

  2. lindsayb

    Too little, too late.
    Regardless of how you label it, highly processed, manufactured convenience “food” is rubbish, even if it is low salt, low kilojoule, high fibre and sugar free. Eating this sort of food is known to cause obesity and malnourishment (often in the same person), and a bunch of other public health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, probably some cancers and possibly the massive leap in autoimmune disease prevalence.
    There is no such thing as a simple solution to this problem, but something needs to be done to stop junk food being cheaper to buy than healthy food. We simply cannot afford to continue down this path. We already have 30 years of bad habits overloading our hospital system.

  3. abarker

    “KFC has two million visits per week Australia-wide — that’s more than 100 million per year.”


    KFC stands for Kids F*ckup Chicken – as in my order when I’ve been there in the past – every time.

  4. Robert Garnett

    Fast food has been around for a long time. KFC started in Australia in 1968. Fast food is one of the mediums by which we have an “obesity crisis” and advertising plays it’s part. Advertising has been around for a long time too.

    Perhaps there is something else going on. Putting food information up on the board may help, but when your hungry calorie counting is not a high priority.

    Fast food and advertising isn’t the root cause. Can anyone guess what the root cause is? Someting to do with time and the economic engine that trashes it?

  5. adeline3

    The National Health Survey released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics stated that more than half of the Australian adults are either overweight or obese. This is a shocking number to the public. The excess body weight may lead to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol (WHO 2003), and even very high levels of psychological distress. We must tackle this issue as soon as possible, not only to reduce the overweight and obesity associated illnesses cost Australian society and governments spent (Access Economics 2006), but more importantly, to improve the overall health of Australians.
    There are many factors that alter the proportion of overweight and obese population, such as, age, birthplace, income and other socioeconomic factors. According to an Australian obesity expert Professor Boyd Swinburn from Deakin University in Melbourne, many foods have become much more processed and manufactured, so they are energy-dense and with lots of chemicals. Also, Jane Martin, senior policy adviser of the Obesity Policy Coalition and the author, mentioned that more people are eating out given that many of them consume fast food. With the Victorian state government’s introduction of fast food menu labelling plan, this may help to prevent obesity. The scheme’s main idea is to require fast food chains to disclose and display kilojoules on menus, so consumers can get access to this information easily and are better informed to make better choices. I do agree that this can help prevent obesity as people will become more conscious about kilojoules they intake whenever they consume fast food, however, I was a bit concerned if it would be effective only by imposing this policy to fast food chains. Would it even be better if the state government extended this to a broader and more diversified area, say, to all restaurants, markets and food supply stores? Nevertheless, I am happy to know that the results of the poll conducted by The Age (http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/fastfood-outlets-forced-to-count-the-kilojoules-20100629-zjaf.html) shows that nearly 60% of the respondents would change their eating habits if they know the calorie content of fast food. While receiving the good news that labelling positively influenced people’s ordering behaviour, it is also important to evaluate the effectiveness of the labelling system. Professor Garry Jennings, director of the Baker IDI Heart & Diabetes Institute suggested that kilojoules, as measure of fat and sugar, were not a measure of salt content, should also be taken into account. The author, Jane Martin, thinks that traffic light labelling with colours indicating the level of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt, which makes it easy for consumers to comprehend, at the same time enables consumers to quickly know the amount they intake. But I wonder if this labelling system would be too simplistic that it does not show any guideline daily amounts and percentage of the fat, sugar and salt per serving.

    In addition, there is a recent research suggesting that “junk food can be addictive, even when the person eating it knows it is bad for them” (http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2010/03/29/2858669.htm ). This is really an alarming statement and it’s quite dangerous if this trend continues because even if people consciously know that junk food are bad for their health, they cannot get rid of the addiction, just like the effect drugs can do on people. I hope that the labelling plan could really be effective in tackling this problem and the statement that the labelling plan encourages people to make healthier lifestyle and informed eating choices given by NSW Premier Kristina Keneally (NSW Labor, http://www.nswalp.com/blog/1026/nsw-advocates-national-approach-on-fast-food-labelling) will come true.
    Finally, I want to make a short note in order to reply to LINSAYB’s suggestion that we should stop junk food being cheaper to buy than healthy food. I strongly agree with her idea as I believe that reducing the accessibility (in terms of ease and cost) to consume fast food can greatly help prevent obesity.

  6. candiceto

    Obesity is caused by fat depositing on our bodies when the energy we consume from food and drink is greater than the energy used in activities and at rest. According to the Victorian State Government, obesity rates in Australia have more than doubled over the past 20 years. Around seven million Australians are now overweight or obese. Obesity increases the risk of many diseases such as high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and coronary heart disease. Most of these diseases can be prevented with lifestyle changes including proper nutrition and regular exercise. The Australian Federal Government has added obesity to its list of national health priorities.
    National statistics found that people are increasingly eating out with a large proportion of these meals being fast food. You can drive down the road and pass five or six fast food restaurants in less than a kilometre. There are fast food restaurants inside some schools. Fast foods are showing up in airports and food courts in shopping malls. It’s basically everywhere. The food industry spends billions of dollars annually to convince people to eat their products. Fast foods are usually high on starch, sugar, salts and fats which is served in a large quantity. Fast food chains deserve some of the blame for obesity and there is a need for these companies to take some responsibility to alert their customers to the high calorie and fat content of the food they offer. Furthermore, a new research by Neurobiologist Associate Professor Paul Kenny from the Scripps Research Institute in Florida (http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2010/03/29/2858669.htm) says overeating junk food is addictive and can lead to a compulsive habit.
    Concerning all the concerns and bad influences on fast food that have been raised, it is crucial for the Victorian state government to introduce new labelling requirements for fast-food outlets. The effectiveness of the newly announced campaign is supported by a study in New York, where kilojoule counts have been required on fast-food menus since 2007, showed the information influenced about one-third of customers, who made healthier choices as a result. (http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/fastfood-outlets-forced-to-count-the-kilojoules-20100629-zjaf.html) “The new labeling requirements would enable consumers to make better choices and had proven effective overseas, including the United States.” said Premier John Brumby.
    Despite the campaign that has been proposed, Professor Moodie claimed that kilojoule counts were ”one small part of the solution” to obesity, which restrictions on junk food advertising and guidelines on portion size should also be put into consideration.
    Apart form the good taste, people are tempted to go to fast food restaurant because of the relatively low food prices. In Dec 2009, the Bureau of Health Promotion in Taiwan drafted a bill to levy tax on unhealthy food such as fast food, soft drinks, candy, cakes and alcohol. If the bill is approved, Taiwan would be the first government to impose tax on junk food to encourage healthy eating and cut down obesity rates.
    Victoria has initiated the first step to take on prevention about overeating fast food. However, this is not the end of this issue and more has to be done continuingly to make the campaign successful.

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