Food labels showing exercise options ‘better’ than listing calories

Food labels have been suggested as a way to boost exercise and fight obesity. Picture: Paul Ellis/Getty Images
Food labels have been suggested as a way to boost exercise and fight obesity. Picture: Paul Ellis/Getty Images
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Telling people how much exercise they need to do to burn off food and drink could be more effective at encouraging healthier choices than simply listing the calories, a study has claimed.

Physical activity calorie equivalent or expenditure (Pace) food labelling tells consumers how many minutes or miles of exercise they need to do to burn off the calories in a particular product.

The Royal Society for Public Health has called for Pace labelling to replace the current system, where calories and nutritional content are listed.

The authors said this is having a limited effect on changing purchasing and eating behaviours as many people do not understand the meaning of calories or fat levels in terms of energy balance. Researchers from Loughborough University and colleagues predict the system could shave off up to about 200 calories per person each day on average. This could prevent population-level obesity, as regular over-consumption of small amounts of calories is a key contributing factor, they said.

They pooled data from 14 randomised controlled trials comparing the impact of Pace labelling with other types on the selection, purchase and consumption of food and drinks, excluding alcohol.

They found that fewer grams of food and beverages were consumed, fewer calories selected and fewer calories consumed when Pace labelling was used, compared with other types of label or no labels.

Some 65 fewer calories per meal were selected when Pace labelling was used, and 80-100 fewer calories consumed. Researchers said this would scale up to roughly 200 calories per day.

However, they cautioned that many of the studies were not carried out in real-life environments, such as restaurants and supermarkets.

The authors said the effects of Pace labelling could vary according to context, with marketing, time constraints and price all likely to affect choices. They are calling for more research in real-world settings.

They wrote: “Pace labelling is a simple strategy that could be easily included on food/beverage packaging by manufacturers, on shelving price labels in supermarkets, and/or in menus in restaurants/fast-food outlets. Public health agencies may want to consider the possibility of including policies to promote (it) as a strategy that contributes to the prevention and treatment of obesity and related diseases.”

Gillian Purdon, senior public health nutrition advisor at Food Standards Scotland, said: “This study is a useful addition to the evidence in this area, and we will consider the findings in our forthcoming evidence review on calorie labelling. We recognise a range of measures are required to tackle poor diet, obesity and diet-related ill health. Food Standards Scotland has put forward recommendations to Scottish Government which are designed to address the Out of Home food environment and improve public health in Scotland.

“These include displaying calories on menus, reducing excessive portion sizes, and healthier food and drink provision on children’s menus.”