black&white #27: The calorie conundrum – do they matter?

black&white #27: The calorie conundrum – do they matter?

2 min steep

Next week on the 6th April, all large food service businesses (those with more than 250 employees) will be required by law to list calorie content on their menus for both food and drink – and will include restaurants, cafes and takeaways. It’s part of the government’s landmark obesity strategy, launched last year after evidence emerged that those living with overweight and obesity were at higher risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. And while all individuals and businesses welcome policies to improve the health of the nation, many in hospitality have questioned whether now is the time to impose new and costly rules on an industry that's suffered terribly at the hands of the pandemic. 

For us in the tea business, the new legislation won’t have a huge impact – though it will of course affect the wider operations of some of our larger trade partners. Pre-packaged food in the UK is already required to list nutritional information and calorie content, but teas, herbals and fruit infusions are some of the few exemptions to the rule. Why? Because tea drinkers only infuse rather than consume the leaf, flower, seed or berry, we only consume a fraction of the total calorie content of the whole food. For example, the black or green tea (served without milk) only contains about 1 calorie per 100g – or around 2 calories a cup. Similarly, herbal and fruit infusions will typically contain around 1-3 calories, depending on what they are made of. Adding semi-skimmed cow’s milk to your cup adds around 14 calories, and a spoonful or cube of sugar a further 9. So, unless you’re drinking lots of cups of sugary, milky tea every day, tea is a great low-calorie option.

Woman Drinking Canton Tea on a Balcony

Because tea is an infusion of leaf, flower, seed or berry, you only
consume a fraction of the total calories of the whole food.

But, although we’ve been told for decades that calorie counting holds the secret to losing weight or even just being healthy, some top figures in the food and science world are starting to question this line of thinking. Professor Tim Spector, a geneticist at King’s College London, maintains that counting calories – or even sugar and fat intake – is the wrong way to go about maintaining a healthy weight and diet. It’s one of the many myths he sets out to debunk in his bestselling book Spoon-Fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told about Food is Wrong, including how breakfast actually isn’t the most important meal of the day and why caffeine is good for you (something we’ve written about in the past). What’s his problem with calories? Well, they’re a highly reductive way of approaching healthy eating. Firstly, individuals all process calories in different ways and extract different amounts of energy. Some people may metabolise starchy carbohydrates like pasta quicker than others – Spector himself conducted a study showing that even twins vary hugely in how they metabolise food. Secondly, humans digest food very differently depending on how it is processed and cooked – fresh corn on the cob is highly fibrous, but cornflakes have this stripped away during processing. Treating the energy gained from the two forms of corn is just too simplistic – and is the difference between non-nutritious calories from ultra-processed food and nutritious, healthy calories from whole, unprocessed foods. And thirdly, studies have shown that calorie estimates can be very inaccurate and if so, are nearly always an underestimate. Another problem – summarised here by the charity Beat – is that for those who suffer (or have done in the past) from eating disorders, seeing calories on menus can be very triggering and cause feelings of distress and anxiety. 

Professor Tim Spector

Professor Tim Spector and his latest book, Spoon-Fed.
Photograph by The Evening Standard.

On the other hand, we have a chronic obesity problem in the country and counting calories can help you lose weight. The new legislation could also force the affected businesses – many of them fast food chains – to reformulate their foods into healthier products. And by only focusing on large food companies, the government is at least protecting smaller, independent businesses from the costly changes. But is it going to transform the food system and promote the healthy, sustainable diets we need? That depends on whether it's implemented as part of a cohesive strategy to tackle the root causes of poor diet. More low-intervention policy based on nudge theory isn’t going to do the job by itself.

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