Indulgence is delicious. Pick the menu and turn to breakfast. Now, play a number game. Kachori is at 201 kcal, poha at 270 kcal, quinoa salad at 296 kcal, granola bar at 471 kcal, and coffee (with milk) -- 70 kcal (nine calorie short of a popsicle). Pick poha. No. Granola bar. No. Coffee. No. Granola bar. Skip it for kachori. Why not? The “superfood” quinoa salad can wait. How would you make a choice? Would you go by the numbers and still "indulge"?
More numbers. It is lunch time. Fettucine Alfredo is at 415 calories, lamb chops at 456, a burrito at 206 kcal and khichadi at 336 kcal. For dessert, there is carrot cake (minus the frosting), at 415kcal, and wholewheat chocolate muffin at 340 kcal. Would you go by habit and taste? There are two options. Go for something that is below 200 kcal, or go by taste and nutrients (and still suffer the guilt of consuming more calories). Would you declare love for khichadi? Oodles of dilemma.
Recently, the food industry woke up to similar dilemma when Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) announced their proposal of asking restaurants to declare details of calorie intake and nutrition information in the menu. FSSAI proposed to have standard menu labelling, which is, calorie count of each dish served. Are low-calorie menus and special menus (vegan, gluten-free, lactose-free and such) the next obvious step?
While the labeling of menu seems to endanger the very meaning of “indulgence”, it does seem to be a far cry in the Indian scenario. It may work as an initiative. Pawan Agarwal, president, FSSAI, in his statement to two leading newspapers said, “We are taking a 360 degree approach to food safety and healthy nutrition to prevent food-borne infections and diseases and for complete nutrition for citizens every all the time.” He added, “declaring details of calorie intake and nutrition information ensures that consumers are informed. These things are already part of labeling norms for packaged food.”
Though the proposal, “to start with, is voluntary”, and is open to suggestions, provided the bigger players come forward with the initiative, it may go mandatory at some point, like the back-labeling of packets (especially imports), a few years ago. Perhaps FSSAI, the regulatory body, would like to make nutritional-labeling of menu an important part of the Food and Beverage (F&B) service before moving to the in-chaos organic segment. As of now, no guidelines have been given.
The industry has given mixed reactions. While National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI) president and restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani does not mind supporting it till it is still left to the owner’s and chef’s discretion (restaurant these days do have low-calorie and special menus), some feel it is a great idea to help people turn to healthy and informed eating. 'Healthy' options in the menus, juice bars and breakfast at quick service restaurants have offered nutrition-labeled menus. Some restaurants and five star hotels have curated course-oriented health menus (including sinful desserts) with meals sold under the tag of “below 500 calories.”
The short shelf life of the extremely clever initiative was due to two factors -- variety and expenses. Any chef will confess that creating a healthy menu which gives you nutrients with good quality ingredients is more viable than keeping a dish calorie count below the magical number of 150-170 kcal for a serving size of 150-200 grams while still lending it the expected taste profile. Then, the cost of nutrition=labeling. Calorie-vetting a dish down to the fat, protein and fibre, has a cost. How often will the menus be renewed, tweaked, changed, made-over and re-introduced? There would be a presentation cost, to ensure that the restaurant is trending, and that could be stretching it a little too far.
No two restaurants following the same cuisine or concept tow the same line when it comes to serving- sizes. While in a corporate lunch, the serving size of dal is 75-100 gram, on the al a carte table, the same dal would be nearly 200 grams. At a fine dining restaurant, while the amuse bouche is 75gm, a dish of pork ribs could go up to 300-plus grams, and desserts often between 150 -200 grams. For restaurants that serve big meals, like sizzler or all-you-can-eat buffet as value for money option, the portion sizes automatically go over and above.
The sheer discrepancies in serving-size can get you confusing numbers. The calorie count of a dish is not determined solely by the portion sizes. What goes into creating the dish has as much a role to play in adding up the numbers. Two burgers, dals, rice, and meat prepared with seemingly same-size vegetable, patties or meat pieces could have different calorie-counts. Blame the truffle oil which was drizzled to give that amazing palate feel, or the dash of cream, or the sugar added in the beginning to caramalise the onions for better taste. Some empty calories hop in on adding maida and concentrate. Result -- you have one burger at 256Kcal, another at 460 kcal.
Numbers tell a story, but percentages of fat and fibre do not accurately tell the nutritional value of the dish. Take the case of a basic Caesar salad at 180 calories and a serving of litti (2 pieces) -- approximately above 200, depending on its filling (chokha adds 50-70 calories). Is the salad a better bet? By numbers, it is, by nutrients, the Bihari specialty is a power house. Think discrepancies. Restaurants have their own style of making the dish and using ingredients as per availability. A fresh ingredient is likely to give a lower sodium content than processed or cured ingredient.
Clearly, for a country where standardisation of this sort is a nightmare, given the diversity, a nutrition-labeled standard menu is a concept with tough luck at succeeding. There are exceptions to the rule, like pre-designed meal in the box; coffee shops, artisanal dessert makers and quick service restaurants working with a standard menu. For restaurants that work on a different model, of creating an experience and indulgence, it would be tough to balance the menu and moods. Having a nutrition-labeled menu would lead to a different calorie index and foil the entire purpose. Designing of the nutrition-labeled menus needs thorough consideration, recaliberating a new process of educating diners on what are they eating, and how much is good for them.
Madhulika Dash is a writer with over 13 years of experience writing features from tech to cars to health. She is also a seasoned food appreciator who writes on Indian restaurants and cuisines across different platforms. She has also been on the food panel of MasterChef India Season 4.
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