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SIR, THAT WOULD COME WITH CALORIES

Come June 15, and most of your dining experience is likely to be punctured with this add-on, courtesy a recent directive by FSSAI that mandates spelling out calories, nutrition, allergen of each dish on the menu – even the limited ones. Good news or bleh, my take.


By Madhulika Dash; Illustration: Seema Misra

Let me begin by voicing out what we all, writers, chefs, hoteliers and diners, in unison instantly felt when the FSSAI mandate on new menu labelling was annouced last month: “not happening”. After all, counting calories is the last thing in our mind when dining out. So why such a joy-kill decision?

First, the rule decoding.

As a policy maker, it has been an ongoing endevour for FSSAI to improve the quality of food offered across board. This directive is one of the many steps that the body has taken over the past few years supported by an array of other food and environment sensitive agencies in that direction. Though long in the mulling and making process, what acted as a catalyst in this case was the pandemic that brought back the spotlight not just on health, but also food and its overall quality.

This meant that as part of the ruling, FSSAI wanted a complete food wellness decoding so that the diners could make an informed decision.

Incidentally, FSSAI mandate for menu labelling – it has released a similar diktat for FMCG companies as well - hasn't been all 'up in the air' talk. It is based on three crucial elements that have marked the dining scape since ages: one, our popular food habits that despite of all the new trend is still largely seasonal and local; two, the variety of food and its composition, which is rooted in the traditional know-how of a balanced meal; and third, the rising  awareness about food – which is not just the finished product but also the ingredients, sourcing and processing.

In fact, the past two years has witnessed an exponential number of food, agro and D2C start-ups across the country, most concentrating on delivering quality food.

The FSSAI directive then looks like a gradual progession towards a food healthy nation – and knowing the nitty gritties of food served is just another way to become an informed diner. To support the implementation, there were necessary steps taken to help the transformation to happen which involved re-assessing each dish as per the ingredients used, process of making and any additives.

On paper, and on the backdrop of the recent occurences,  the initiative though mammoth but  applause-worthy. Will it pan well on the table? Here is where the contentions come in.

Nah or Yay!

By all logic, the rule doesn't gel well in the head. And one of the key reason is the limited space it is applicable in as we write – which are the hotels (all formats), e-commerce FBO, canteens with centeral license, restaurants that are multi-city or make more the 12CR, cloud kitchens, caterers and any establishement that have central licensing, which includes those that serve government offices and those that deliver in Railways and other such facility.    
This funnily means that while there will be a few places that would lay out every single calorie, allergen and other facet of each and every dish and drink ordered, there will be others who wouldn't. This sends across a confusing message as the segment which has been left out of the directive preview as of now is where the majorty of Indians eat on a daily basis, thanks to the food economics.

The other issue with the directive is the implementation itself. Given that the food business in India is largerly unoragnised, ensuring a fructitious enactment of the rule seems iffy.  Even with an active associate like the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), bringing the wide net change is going to take time and will have to be a cause driven by the diners or the owners' and shareholders'.

And there lies the third issue. Food business in India, especially with dining out, has always been a tricky affair. Aside inflation and logistic issue that has been the bane for the business for a long, long time, is the lacuna of sector friendly rules and laws. The industry has been fighting laws that are archaic and discouraging. A recent example of this is the unnecessary service charge ruling that was slapped on the already bleeding sector. Add to that is the long-pending want of a single window clearance for most establishment. On top of that a mandate like this is an add-on expense that as of now is being done on an app that has been designed only for calorie counts of the ingredients, and doesn't factor in a lot of other things that affect food at different stages. Clearly, there was a need for a gradual progression than a blanket slap.

The last not the least of course is the generic response to the rule, which as of now doesnt't look encouraging – and thus may prove to be the hinderance in the longer run. And that emotion is of WHY? Why to ruin an evening or a meal that is meant for sheer indulgence and celebration.

The Big Ifs'

Of course an argument on FSSAI behalf can be that it is for the larger good, diners should be informed. But if one has observed the said segment where the mandate is applicable, then the wheel was already in function. Meaning:

1. Most hotels and restaurant today, as part of their ethos (and novelty), mention not only how they source the ingredient, the process, allergent (if any), and even the method of making – which has been tweaked to keep the food tasty as well as nutritive. Like the use of sous vide, slow cooking methodology and dutch oven for cooking – which are nutritive saving options.

2. Two, there are already menus and options developed that take care of diners who are on a special diet or have specific dietary requirements. And this includes the health/wellness menu, and vegan/plant-based and gluten-free specials that most restaurant and hotel in the FSSAI list already have in place.

3. The generic awareness about going local and working with farmers around the region. While the farm to table practice may not be plausible in these dining spaces, most segment in the list do follow a source locally practice, purely because it gives them consistent quality product. The list has increased in the past few years as the interest in local, traditional food and ingredients has risen.

4. The mandate of making it part of every menu – pop-up and buffet included- may just backfire as both are experiential bits, especially curated for indulgences.

There is no denying that a few in the list need a upgrade in their food offering itself before the nutritive angle makes sense with their offering,

However, there is another facet that doesn't really work and needs more investment, time and research. The calorie count of Indian food. Nothing in our food is standardised, so the one calorie works all dishes is an approach that would never really draw home the value of such an intiative. Another reason that each dish has to be study well is the topography – which has since history played a crucial factor in designing a dish, even if it was adopted on a king's whimiscal behest.

In the meantime, one can only hope of a nexus be created between chefs, food practitioners and nutrition expert to create a program that is suitable to the Indian dining space.

Till then, the Buddha rule of moderation is the best path to take when dining out.