Current food labels have little impact on changing people’s behavior. Most of us are bewildered by the long list of information on the labels, and spend little time looking at them, much less trying to decipher their information.
One of the most read (relatively speaking) items on labels is the calorie count, but even then we’re unlikely to know how to translate that information into anything meaningful.
Meanwhile, we keep getting heavier and heavier. Here in the United States, two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese. And, as recently reported by the World Health Organization, the rest of the world is quickly following suit.
An innovative approach
Enter a new idea: “activity equivalent” calorie labeling. Such labels would use easy-to-recognize symbols to show how many minutes of several different physical activities — such as walking, running and biking — are equivalent to burning off the calories in the product.
For example, a chocolate bar that contains 229 calories could have the following images on its front wrapper: a walker with 42 min next to it, a runner (22 min) and a biker (49 min).
“The aim is to prompt people to be more mindful of the energy they consume and how these calories relate to activities in their everyday lives, to encourage them to be more physically active,” writes Shirley Cramer, chief executive of Great Britain’s Royal Society for Public Health, in a commentary on the topic published last week in the BMJ.
Earlier this year, her organization issued a position paper in which it advocated for activity equivalent calorie labeling on all packaged foods and drinks. (The U.K. needs to change its residents’ eating behavior as urgently as the U.S. does, for more than two-thirds of British adults are also either overweight or obese.) Surveys conducted by the society have suggested that this approach can work.
“When the Royal Society for Public Health consulted the public, more than half (53%) said that they would positively change their behaviour as a result of viewing activity equivalent calorie information — by choosing healthier products, eating smaller portions, or doing more physical exercise, all of which could help to counter obesity,” Cramer writes (with British spellings).
Of course, this is what people said they’d do if food products had those labels. The society didn’t conduct a study to see if the labels would actually alter people’s behaviors.
Other researchers have, however, done such a study — at least, on one aspect of behavioral change. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University reported in 2014 that teenagers were significantly less likely to purchase sodas in corner stores in Baltimore when the stores posted signs showing the physical activity equivalents for those products.
‘People can’t outrun a bad diet’
Cramer is careful to point out in her commentary the limitations of activity equivalent calorie labeling.
“We won’t reduce obesity by focusing on diet or physical activity alone,” she writes. “People need to create a balanced relationship between the calories they consume and the calories they expend.”
She also stresses that “people can’t out-run a bad diet, and messages about the importance of healthy and varied eating must also continue.”
Still, “placing information on food and drink packaging to promote an active lifestyle could be a logical solution to a multifaceted problem,” Cramer says, “and the benefits of being active go far beyond maintaining a healthy weight. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has described regular physical activity as a ‘miracle cure’ because it boosts self-esteem, mood, sleep quality, and energy levels and reduces the risk of stress, depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.”
If only we could fit all of that on food labels, too.