Eating out and sugary treats are indulgences we’re much more likely to partake in during December. But how healthy are the sweets and desserts on offer in our favourite UK chains?

We set out to determine which sweet items from 24 different chains have the highest calorie, sugar and saturated fat content, and reveal how easy it is to exceed recommended reference intakes with just one dish.

  • From the 24 chains we looked at, Harvester's Chocolate Fudgecake was the dessert which contained the most calories, at 1,217. A woman's daily calorie reference intake is 2,000, and a man's is 2,500, meaning that this dessert comes in at around half of a person's daily recommended calorie quota. 
  • This item also contained the most sugar, at 128.3 grams. An adult's daily reference intake in total sugars is 90 grams, but experts say that the level of consumption most beneficial to health is around 30 grams.
  • Toby's Chocolate and Oreo Mess topped our saturated fat chart, with 53 grams. This is over twice the reference intake for an adult, which is 20 grams.

Sugar -Comparison -table _0.5 (2)

  • Harvester’s Chocolate Fudge Cake tops the list of chains featured, with 128.3 grams of sugar.
  • Traditional pub food chains Wetherspoons, Table Table and Toby Carvery round out the top four. Each of the sugariest desserts from their respective menus would take someone over the 90 grams total sugar threshold.
  • By contrast, the sugariest dessert on Gourmet Burger Kitchen's menu was the Yeo Valley Strawberry Ice Cream Pot, with just 15.2 grams of sugar.

Calorie -Comparison -table _0.5

  • Once more, Harvester, Toby, Wetherspoons and Table Table take first to fourth place on our list. Harvester’s Chocolate
  • Fudge Cake, at 1217 calories, accounts for close to half of an adult’s recommended calorie intake. This is more than double the calorie content of McDonald’s and Burger King’s most calorific dessert offerings.
  • With just 231 calories, Yo Sushi’s Matcha Roll is the most calorific of the eight dessert dishes they listed information for.

Saturated -Fat -Comparison -table _0.4

  • Toby’s Chocolate and Oreo Mess tops the list of chains featured with 53 grams.
  • The reference intake for an adult is 20 grams.
  • 11 of the 23 desserts featured exceed this amount.

December Rules

Many of us consider December something of a free-for-all month when it comes to indulging; and prominent among these indulgences are sweet, sugary foods, and eating out. However much we might like to think that December calories don’t count though, they do.

As we’ve said before, it’s incredibly easy to exceed recommended daily intakes when dining out. The level of salt contained in just one restaurant meal can push someone significantly over the 2-6 gram threshold; and the number of calories someone might consume during a restaurant visit may carry them close to their 2,000 (for women) or 2,500 (for men) recommended daily total.

Sugar is another area where it is easy to go overboard during a meal out. Reference intake guidelines state that 90 grams is the recommended maximum; but Action On Sugar advise that a healthy level of consumption for adults is actually much closer to 30 grams.

With this in mind, we thought it might be interesting to look at some of the desserts on offer in some of the UK’s most popular restaurant chains, and see how they stack up from a sugar, calorie and saturated fat content perspective.

Transparency

Firstly, we would like to praise the chains featured for being transparent and publishing their nutrition information online.

We noted several large UK chains that still do not carry nutritional information for their menus on their sites, which makes it harder for consumers to plan ahead and make informed decisions. The 24 chains we have featured deserve recognition for making the information accessible.

Methodology

We compared the dessert or sweet menu items with the highest sugar, calorie and saturated fat content from each chain, as stated on their nutritional information. We made our assessments based on the serving or portion size specified.

  • We excluded items which were clearly marked as sharer desserts, as these are explicitly intended for more than one person to consume.
  • In some cases milkshakes and sweet beverages were featured on dessert menus. However we decided to discount these results, as not every chain included these on their sweet menu.
  • Cookies, biscuits and muffins were included.

What can we interpret from the results?

Full service restaurants have generally migrated towards the top of each table; whereas pizza delivery chains (Papa John's and Domino’s) and fast food outlets (KFC and McDonald’s) have tended more towards the lower third.

There are several possible reasons as to why this might be, but perhaps the most obvious is serving sizes. In full service restaurants, dessert portion sizes tend to be larger than those in fast food restaurants.

Furthermore, full service restaurants specialise more in the dining experience, and as such desserts might be served with extras such as ice cream and sauces, to make them more presentable (and this has the added benefit of making them more aesthetically appealing to other diners).

In fast food outlets, takeaways and sandwich bars however, the focus is much more on portability and speed, and dessert portion sizes will therefore tend to be smaller.

Gourmet Burger Kitchen would appear to be the exception to this rule, featuring at the bottom of each table. However, while their dessert menu (featuring Yeo Valley ice Cream Pots) is comparatively healthy, their milkshake menu makes up the difference; their ‘Nutter Milkshake’ contains 1034 calories and their ‘Honeycomb Milkshake’ 96.3 grams of sugar.

There are several chains with desserts which feature in the top seven across all three measures. These are Toby Carvery, Ask Italian, Wetherspoons, Pizza Hut, Harvester, and Table Table.

Of these six chains, four might be said to specialise in offering traditional ‘pub food’ menus. It’s common for pub food outlets to prioritise providing customers with value for money, and thereby offer larger portion sizes; and we would wager that this has a hand in why their dishes feature near the top in all three measures.

Effect on health

There’s little harm in ordering an indulgent dessert very occasionally. But ‘very occasionally’ are the crucial words in that sentence.

Ordering and eating a dessert which exceeds (or for that matter even comes close to) 1,000 calories or 100 grams of sugar on a regular basis is going to pose a health risk, and increase someone’s susceptibility to obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Balance is of key importance. We obviously need for calories for energy, but these need to come from the right places.

When you consider that a wholesome main course can contain as few as 300-400 calories, and the most calorific dessert on our list contains three times this amount, it’s easy to see how this balance can become skewed when eating out.

Choosing wisely

We’ve written before that eating at home during the week (and saving eating out for the weekends and special occasions) affords consumers more control over the amount of salt and fat going into their food on an everyday basis.

However December is, for many, the most social month of the year, and eating out more often during the run-up to Christmas is, for many, essentially unavoidable.

So to meet the social demands of December, it pays to know how to be able to eat out healthily, and make wise restaurant choices:

  • Before you go to the restaurant, do your research. Go to their website and have a look at the nutrition information if they have it, so you know which desserts are the healthier (or less healthier) options.
  • If they don’t have the information available on the site, give them a call and see if they have the info in store, so that they can scan and email it over to you.
  • If you find yourself tempted by a particular dessert which has a high sugar or calorie content, see if anyone else is willing to share one.
  • Remember that you don’t need to finish everything on the plate just because it’s there. Take your time, and stop once you feel full and satisfied.
  • Finally, don’t cave in to peer pressure. Someone else in your party ordering dessert doesn’t necessarily mean you have to. If you feel like you need something to keep your hands occupied during the dessert course, try ordering a decaf or a fruit tea.