x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Count calories if you can find them

Fast-food restaurants are urged to make the calorie count of their products more readily available to customers.

People buying food at Pizza Hut restaurant at Dubai Mall.
People buying food at Pizza Hut restaurant at Dubai Mall.

Winning the battle against obesity would be easier, say nutritionists, if fast-food outlets provided customers with calorie information for their fare - and did not keep it on a laminated card under the counter. Martin Croucher reports

DUBAI // The food may be fast but restaurants are dragging their feet when it comes to providing essential information.

Burger, pizza and fried chicken outlets vigorously compete to satisfy the appetites of their clients, but nutritionists say they fail when it comes to a growing public hunger to know the calorie content of their food.

Without such information, the fight against obesity becomes significantly harder.

A survey of popular food outlets in Dubai revealed that few, if any, gave nutritional information to customers. In a survey of 592 residents of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in July, 65.5 per cent said they would like restaurants to provide more of it.

"People are more aware and are asking more and more, 'how many calories are in this meal?'" said Hala Abu Taha, a nutritionist at the healthy-eating company Right Bite.

"By not publishing this information, people are made guiltless when they eat a high-calorie meal. People can look online for this information but sometimes it's less convenient then having it to hand."

Subway, Hardee's, KFC and Pizza Hut branches at Mall of the Emirates did not offer calorie data behind the counter or in leaflets.

Fatburger and Charley's Grilled Subs did have details, but on a laminated card kept under the counter.

The manager for Burger King said a card was not available but she had memorised the calorie counts for all meal options.

"This information is not available in most restaurants," said Fatima Al Marzooqi, an educator at the Ministry of Health.

"The information is available but people need to search for it either on the internet or in books. Restaurants need to make it easier for customers. If I wanted to buy something, I should have full information about it."

Providing nutritional information to customers is voluntary. Food control officials from Dubai and Abu Dhabi said the safety of produce was the sole area where food regulations were enforced.

"This is still a developing area," said an official from Dubai Municipality's Food Control Department.

But a spokeswoman for the Dubai Health Authority said that rules on publishing nutritional information were "in the pipeline".

"We are working with the relevant stakeholders to look at implementing it in the future," she said.

It was not clear how far any measures would go.

Obesity is a major problem in the UAE, where 30.2 per cent of men are classified as obese and 43 per cent of women, the most recent statistics from the World Health Organization show. The numbers are expected to increase.

Last year, the British government attracted criticism for its Public Health Responsibility Deal, which sought only voluntary commitments from restaurants to publish nutritional information.

In September, McDonald's began publishing calorie counts on menu boards outside its UK restaurants.

A spokesman for McDonalds UAE said that would not be done here, but he stressed the company had been publishing nutritional information on the back of its paper tray covers for eight years.

Customers can also book tours of McDonald's kitchens as part of a UAE-specific policy.

"We provide them with detailed information about our products, the methods of preparation and answer any questions that they may have," the spokesman said.

Many people were unaware this information was available.

"I had no idea they published the calorie count at all," said Terry Bird, 41, from the UK. "I never thought to look under the tray sheet. They've done a good job in hiding it."

Other residents said they would rather not know the information.

"I only come once a week to McDonald's to cheat on my diet," said Mohammed Kapoor, 27, also from the UK. "I'd only feel guilty if I knew how many calories I was eating."