Mostly the policies concern the labelling of food, training of personnel, advertising. The healthiness of the meals seems to be of less concern, and if there are rules, for instance on healthy school meals, they are hardly monitored or enforced.
Yet the researchers showed with a simple experiment in a student canteen – offering extra vegetables and fruits for free – that it is possible to influence people’s eating habits for the better, even after the experiment. Simple measures also could be taken regarding portion size, calories, choice, nutritional information.
Lachat also explored what the catering sector deemed necessary to offer healthy meals. Technical support and capacity building to compose a healthy meal were most needed, jus as a working definition of “healthy foods”. And such a definition doesn’t work if it is only tailored towards large industries, and not to the many small enterprises in the food and meal sector.
According to Lachat there are clear opportunities for the catering sector to jump on the bandwagon of healthy out of home food. If the authorities pay attention to the composition of out of home meals, and if they involve the catering sector, they are in a position to improve the eating pattern – and the health – of large populations. Not only in European countries, but worldwide, because also in developing countries people often eat out of home, and ‘western’ diet-related diseases like obesity and heart disease are on the rise. Overweight and diet-related chronic diseases have surpassed undernutrition as the most important cause of ill health worldwide.
The policymakers will have to balance commercial interests against public health and sustainability. Sustainable out of house meals offer new solutions for our public health, Lachat concludes.
A third of the Belgian population above 15 years fetch more than a quarter of their energy intake outside the home, and in many countries the numbers are even higher. From a worldwide review by Lachat and colleagues it already was clear that as a rule, food eaten out of home is fatter and saltier, and contains fewer vitamins. Fruits and vegetables also come off badly. The authorities have little power over what we do in the privacy of our kitchen – except for guarantying the safety and traceability of our ingredients – but they can influence the offer of restaurants, canteens, caterers and other commercial food and meal providers.Certainly since our eating habits are an important cause of ill health and premature death, while people eat more and more at work, along the road, in restaurants and food stalls. But half the European countries not even have rules for their caterers, and if they have, they scarcely trace the impact. “Measures are lacking to guarantee the affordability of healthy meals out of home, or to make the sector accountable” says Carl Lachat, whose research at the Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine and Ghent University resulted in a PhD.