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Survey: Three-quarters of British Columbians support mandatory calorie counts on menus

Survey reveals why it is time for the B.C. government to seriously consider what is now required in Ontario
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Restaurants currently lack the same standards that we enjoy at grocery stores when it comes to nutritional information

The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound effect on the way British Columbians eat. In 2020, we saw a significant increase in food delivery after restaurants were compelled to adapt to changing dynamics. Even groceries made their way to our homes, severely limiting our ability to personally pick and choose what to purchase.

Now, as restaurants are once again open and the province’s residents are ready to experience dining out, Research Co. and Glacier Media reviewed our relationship with nutrition. The findings show a public that may be growing more conscious about what to purchase at the supermarket, but an inability to maintain the same procedures when someone else prepares the food we eat.

Across the province, more than a third of British Columbians (37 per cent) say they “frequently” check labels to review the nutritional content of products when they buy groceries for themselves or others in their household. Women are more likely to be in this group (40 per cent) than men (33 per cent).

Our ability to analyze harmonized labels is a huge factor in this level of awareness from British Columbians. We can spend ample time looking into the nutritional content of breakfast cereals or ice cream tubs, and emerge ready to make a decision right then and there.

Restaurants currently lack the same standards that we enjoy at grocery stores. From 2012 to 2020, the province had a voluntary Informed Dining database for commercial foodservice businesses. Right now, few venues feature nutritional data on menus or websites. It is no surprise that only 14 per cent of British Columbians say they “frequently” check menus when dining out to review the nutritional content of specific dishes.

There is an even steeper decline when British Columbians are asked about their behaviour when ordering food delivery. Just 11 per cent check menus or apps to review nutritional content, with the proportion dropping to just six per cent among those aged 55 and over.

Our tendency to turn away from learning more about the food we consume if we are not the ones who prepare is also present on other items. While 29 per cent of British Columbians “frequently” check the total calories of the products they buy at the grocery store, the proportions drop dramatically for menus at restaurants (14 per cent) and food delivery (11 per cent).

A similar decline is observed on two other components: sodium (from 32 per cent at the grocery store, to 14 per cent at restaurants and to 10 per cent in food delivery) and fat (from 29 per cent at the grocery store, to 13 per cent at restaurants and to 11 per cent in food delivery).

Many factors help explain these fluctuations. For some British Columbians, dining out or ordering in is a chance to escape. They may not want to be deterred or demoralized by finding out the caloric content of the cheeseburger they crave after a long day of work. However, the lack of standards for restaurants and apps is also an issue.

A quick look at some of the apps reveals a significant difference. For companies that also have operations in Ontario, the nutritional information is easy to access. Businesses based in British Columbia are not meeting these requirements, even less so now that Informed Dining has been summarily abandoned.

In Ontario, it is mandatory to display calories on any menu that lists or depicts standard food items offered for sale by a regulated foodservices premise. Three in four British Columbians (76 per cent) support implementing a similar regulation in their province, while only 13 per cent are opposed to it.

The food outlets that are already providing this information in British Columbia are the ones that have operations in Ontario. It is easier for companies like Starbucks and McDonald’s to rely on the same billboards and software that they already use in the most populous province. Other companies have been slow to react.

The availability of this information matters more now than four years ago. The proportion of British Columbians who rely on an activity tracker to monitors fitness-related metrics – such as distance walked, exercise and/or calorie consumption – increased from 41 per cent in 2018 to 45 per cent in 2022.

There is growth across all three age groups, with a majority of British Columbians aged 18 to 34 (53 per cent, up six points) now relying on activity trackers. The numbers are also up among their counterparts aged 35 to 54 (47 per cent, up six points) and aged 55 and over (36 per cent, up six points). It is clear that more residents of the province are paying attention to these metrics. It is time for the provincial government to seriously consider what is now mandatory in Ontario.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from July 4 to July 6, 2022, among 800 adults in British Columbia. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in Canada. The margin of error—which measures sample variability—is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.