Trends in energy and nutrient content of menu items served by large UK chain restaurants from 2018 to 2020: an observational study
BMJ Open 2021 ; 11: e054804.
Between 2018 and 2020, the sugar content of food and drinks items served by large UK chains decreased by an average of 0.8g (or 6%) per item. This reduction was particularly marked in drinks and may be attributable to the Soft Drinks Industry Levy. No overall changes in salt, saturated fat or calories were seen.
Food prepared outside of the home, such as in restaurants, cafes and fast-food outlets tends to be less healthy. Over the last few years, the UK government introduced the Sugar and Calorie Reduction Programmes as well as the Soft Drinks Industry Levy. Whilst all three may improve the quality of out-of-home food, only the last is mandatory. New regulations on mandatory calorie labelling will come into effect in April 2022.
We tracked how food and drinks items served by large out-of-home food chains changed between 2018 and 2020. We studied calories as well as salt, saturated fat, and sugar content. We used data published on chains’ own websites in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Twenty-nine large chains were included in the analysis.
When we studied all items on menus, we found that sugar content of menu items decreased by an average of 0.8g per item, or 6%. Calorie, salt, and saturated fat content did not change between 2018 and 2020. The decline in sugar content was seen in drinks, sandwiches, and desserts in particular. This reduction may be due to changes in recipes of existing items (reformulation) or introduction of new items with less sugar than existing items.
When we restricted our analysis to just those items on menus in all three years, we found similar reductions in sugar content and this was seen particularly in drinks. This suggests that at least some drinks have been reformulated to reduce their sugar content. Other studies have also found that the Soft Drinks Industry Levy led to reformulation of drinks.
Our results indicate that future policies addressing the overall nutritional quality of restaurant foods, rather than single nutrients, may help the restaurant sector to offer healthier foods.