Many Canberrans don't understand kilojoules and calories
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Many Canberrans don't understand kilojoules and calories

Canberra's fast food consumers have told ACT Health that taste has a greater impact on their choices than concepts of health and nutrition, with many admitting they can't understand the kilojoule information displayed on most menus.

A review of the ACT's kilojoule display laws has found that while most businesses were compliant with the requirements of the scheme only 15 per cent of consumers' recent purchases were influenced by the information and 37 per cent understood neither kilojoules nor calories.

Many consumers don't understand what a kilojoule is.

Many consumers don't understand what a kilojoule is.

Photo: Nic Walker

Since 2013, businesses forming part of a franchise with seven or more stores in Canberra or 50 or more stores throughout Australia have been required to display the kilojoule content of the ready-to-eat, standardised food items on their menus. Their menu must also include the statement "The average adult daily energy intake is 8700kJ".

ACT Health has responded to its recent review by preparing to roll out consumer education campaigns and providing further support for businesses in implementing the requirements.

"Consumer awareness raising activities will support the ACT’s current laws and assisting consumers to use kilojoule information to make healthier food and drink choices," a spokeswoman said.

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"As activities are rolled out, food businesses will be informed and engaged to maximise the potential benefits of kilojoule labelling for the community."

The directorate's audit of 67 businesses found 32 met the criteria, 11 recorded minor non-compliances and four had limited or no kilojoule information where required.

Five out of 10 businesses with online ordering options ticked every box, with two recording non-compliances and three not having any information at all. Menus hosted by external companies, such as UberEats and Deliveroo, were excluded from the review.

Businesses told ACT Health customers had an expectation that kilojoule information would be provided, while noting some had little understanding or interest in what it meant. None of the outlets reported a reduction in sales but cited an increase in demand for healthier options.

Some businesses complained the requirements meant there were issues in adjusting their menus for trial products or in response to local demand.

Interviews with consumers found athletes, dieters and people trying to eat more healthily most valued kilojoule information. Some people who did not value the information argued they were already buying a treat so did not find the kilojoule content relevant.

More than 80 per cent of 288 people surveyed said they ate from chain food outlets at least once a month.

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report released late last year showed the ACT had among the highest rates of overweight and obese adults of any metropolitan area.

Cancer Council ACT chief executive Sandra Turner said while her organisation supported kilojoule labelling laws it was clear there was a long way to go.

"There’s a great opportunity for the ACT to have a media campaign to encourage people to learn more about healthy eating and nutrition, but also to help them understand the difference between kilojoules, calories and what that actually means for what they’re eating as part of their daily consumption," she said.

An ACT Health spokeswoman said in addition to work under way in response to its review, the territory would consider the findings from national work on kilojoule labelling schemes, which has included consultation with the food industry.

Kilojoule display laws were recommended to all states and territories in a 2011 COAG report. Canberra's laws were modelled on legislation introduced in NSW in 2010.

Tasmania, Western Australia and the Northern Territory are the only jurisdictions without the policy in place.

Emily Baker is a reporter for the Sunday Canberra Times. She previously reported on education for The Canberra Times.