Calorie limits could be imposed on thousands of supermarket foods and restaurant dishes, it was reported last night.
Plans include stringent caps for ready meals, sandwiches and dining out in an effort to tackle obesity.
Draft proposals by Public Health England recommend a limit of 544 calories for instant dinners – significantly less than many of those sold now.
Sandwiches and some salads would be limited to 550 calories, while main courses at restaurants would be capped at 951 calories.
There would also be varying limits for other specific foods such as chips, according to The Daily Telegraph.
But last night critics said the plans were ‘arbitrary and unscientific’, while manufacturers said they were too complex and confusing. The plans are part of a Government childhood obesity strategy to cut the calories in a range of foods by a fifth by 2024.
The initial proposals have already been redrawn after concerns by industry representatives. In particular, there appeared to be major inconsistencies in how limits are set for supermarkets and restaurants.
Portions of chips, waffles, mashed potato and mushy peas would be capped at 302 calories when sold in grocery chains – but 416 calories when sold in restaurants.
Chris Snowdon, of the Institute of Economic Affairs think-tank, said: ‘These demands are worthy of Nero or Caligula. The calorie caps are arbitrary, unscientific and unrealistic. It is reasonable to offer advice on daily calorie consumption but setting limits on individual meals is insane.’
Tim Rycroft, of the Food and Drink Federation, which represents manufacturers, urged the Government to think again.
He said: ‘A collective 20 per cent calorie reduction guideline across all food categories is unfeasible, particularly given the range of food types that this blanket guideline covers.’ Government guidelines say men should eat around 2,500 calories a day, while women should stick to 2,000.
Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said the food industry ‘has a responsibility to act’.