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Eating Out: Habits, Determinants and Recommendations for Consumers and the European Catering Sector

Final Report Summary - HECTOR (Eating Out: Habits, Determinants and Recommendations for Consumers and the European Catering Sector)

Eating out is no longer just for special occasions. It appears that modern living is causing people to eat out more and more and the energy and nutrient intake of individuals who frequently eat out (at restaurants, canteens, cafeterias, fast food outlets and similar establishments) may differ from that of individuals who generally eat at home. At a time of rising concern about energy imbalance and unwise dietary choices, out-of-home food and beverage consumption is thought to play a role in the increasing prevalence of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases in Europe. This is especially important because out-of-home consumption is popular among adolescents and young adults, who are still developing their habits and need more guidance. What is limited, however, is published data on how and what Europeans are choosing to eat beyond their dining rooms.

The HECTOR project's main objective was to understand the patterns of eating out of European consumers, in terms of both supply and demand. In terms of supply the project appraised the services provided by catering and catering-related enterprises, including the small-to-medium sector. To assess demand, HECTOR analysed the characteristics of eating out, socio-demographic, lifestyle and anthropometric factors determining choices, as well as types and quantities of food consumed.

The project has developed a framework which allows for the assessment and monitoring of eating in and eating out food choices, as depicted through Individual Nutrition Surveys (INS) undertaken between 1995 and 2006 in several member states and through household budget surveys (HBS). The nationally representative HBS collecting regularly information on household expenses in European countries lack detailed data on the quantities of foods and beverages consumed while eating out. HECTOR represented a significant opportunity to fill in this gap by exploiting the data on eating out expenses and to substantially enhance knowledge on what and how Europeans eat out.

HECTOR has successfully created an active network of experts in nutrition research (nutritionists, epidemiologists, public health specialists, food technologists), representatives from catering and catering related enterprises, including SMEs, and representatives from national consumers' association and consumer research institutes, located in various EU Member States, Candidate and EFTA countries. The common objective of those involved in HECTOR was to understand the observed eating out behaviours and to formulate and evaluate concrete action plans aiming at promoting healthful out-of-home food choices among the European consumers.

The HECTOR consortium has worked on finalising the HECTOR database including data collected at INS. Given the limited information on eating out through multi-national studies, the HECTOR database is the first central database specialised on food consumption out of home and combining information collected in several European settings. As such the database provides the unique opportunity for exploiting already available data to directly assess out-of-home dietary patterns and derive comparable results across several countries.

The HECTOR database software programme, developed by the coordinating centre, allows the direct retrieval of data stored so as to be used for the analysis of individual-based dietary data on eating out. The finalisation of the HECTOR database has allowed the conduction of analyses and presentation of results in the HECTOR workshops and of subsequent analyses to be presented in several HECTOR manuscripts. In the light of limitations encountered when individual-based dietary data are analysed to assess eating out, the HECTOR consortium has developed and pre-tested a short questionnaire to supplement dietary data collection. The HEOQ is designed to capture habits and attitudes when eating out and follow secular trends. With minimal additions related to questions on participants' personal characteristics, it can be a stand-alone tool. When applied, however, in conjunction to collections of quantified dietary data (such as those through the national HBS or individual-based dietary studies) can allow a comprehensive assessment of food and beverages consumed out of home. In its present form the questionnaire has operated well among an ethically stratified opportunistic sample of more than 100 Europeans. Equally important, however, to the set of questions comprising it is the definition of 'eating out' in the introductory page which, to our knowledge, is the first attempt to conceptualise the different components of a daily habit which in modern societies is becoming increasingly important.

Within HECTOR, material and tools aiming to increase awareness and knowledge on 'healthy eating', have also been developed and were targeted at the staff and the consumers of enterprises of different kinds and size. A strong aspect of these education materials for the catering sector is their development within a research project, involving the academia, governmental and non-governmental organisations and the economic sector. The outcome of the participation of all HECTOR partners in this task is a credible, reliable and useful set of materials, which are expected to contribute to the improvement of eating out in the EU. The two feasibility studies tested the usefulness and understanding of the materials and the active involvement of the partners in the discussion and reformulation of the materials enriched the process. It is understandable that the materials would be more efficient if they could be developed specifically for each country and type of company and for specific target groups. This would avoid the use of advice that is difficult to apply in certain places. Further to the use of available data collected through specially designed INS, HECTOR has exploited the use of information on out-of-home household expenses collected through the readily available HBS. A methodological framework has been tested with the aim to assess out-of-home food choices in countries where no other data on eating out are currently available, but participants concluded that the validity of the estimations is affected by quantitative and qualitative aspects of the information available in the national HBS.

Through the HECTOR project, materials and tools aiming to increase awareness and knowledge on 'healthy eating' targeted at the staff and the consumers of enterprises of different kinds and size have been developed. A number of participants translated the English texts of these materials and tools to their own languages and the final versions are now available for printing from the HECTOR website (please see online) in ten European languages (Croatian, Dutch, English, Finnish, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Polish and Portuguese).