Should food labels include exercise ‘equivalents’?


Story highlights

A UK health group is urging more research on the effect of "activity equivalent" labels on food

These labels would tell consumers the number of minutes they would have to exercise to burn off the calories in the food

Experts worry that these labels will not lead to people to exercise more and could backfire

CNN —  

Imagine you’re choosing between two different boxes of cookies at the grocery store. One has a label informing you that you could burn off the calories in a serving by jogging for 10 minutes, while the label on the other box says you would have to jog for 20 minutes. Would that help you decide which cookie to buy?

Although the idea of these types of food labels has not really picked up steam in the United States, the Royal Society for Public Health, an organization of health care professionals in the United Kingdom, is advocating these “activity equivalent” labels. They would tell consumers how many minutes they would have to engage in several types of exercise, such as walking and jogging, to expend the calories in specific food items.

“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,” wrote Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, in an opinion article published on Wednesday in The BMJ.

It is an intriguing idea, according to experts in the United States, but there isn’t enough information about whether these labels do any good to recommend them, much less require them by law, they said. Some even worry the activity labels could have unintended effects.

“I think it’s a good idea, but I’m a believer in evidence-based policy, so we need a fair bit more evidence before we would have a good justification for moving to a law” requiring food makers to include this label on products, said James F. Sallis, professor of family and preventive medicine at University of California-San Diego.

The evidence out there

There has not been a lot of research on the effect of physical activity labels, but the studies that are out there are somewhat encouraging. One study asked more than 800 parents to look at a fast food menu online and pick which meal they would order for their child. Parents who viewed a menu that listed calories and the number of minutes or miles to walk to burn them off did not order a lower calorie meal than those who saw only calories listed. Nevertheless, parents said they would be more likely to encourage their child to exercise if they saw information about physical activity on menus.

But it’s unclear from this study whether these labels would translate to more parents talking with their kids about exercise and more kids exercising. “There is a big gap between intention and follow-through, so it is hard to say,” said Sallis, who studies the effects of the environment on levels of physical activity.

More research needs to be done to see whether these labels affect what people buy in the grocery store and order in restaurants, and also how much they exercise, Sallis said.

Another study suggested that displaying information about exercise in a store could influence shoppers’ choices. The researchers put bright signs on beverage cases in corner stores in predominantly black Baltimore neighborhoods. They found that teens bought fewer bottles of soda or fruit juice if the sign said they would have to run for 50 minutes to burn off the calories in one of those drinks. In contrast, signs that simply stated the number of calories in a sugar-sweetened beverage, along with the percentage of total daily calories, had a smaller effect.

A similar effort was rolled out in New York City in 2011, when signs on the subway alerted riders that they would have to walk 3 miles to burn off the calories in a 20-ounce soda. Health officials there said the information helped people understand how many calories were in a sugary drink.

Although a simple label – saying, for example, that it would take 45 minutes to walk off that cookie – would be easy for consumers to understand, it could also be misleading. “It will take someone who is 100 pounds twice as long to walk it off as a 200-pound person, so in fact, if there was a little more information, which of course it would be hard to put on the label, it might be more encouraging to tell people if you are already overweight it might take you less time to walk that off,” Sallis said.

Potential unintended consequences