Food labels that tell people how much exercise would be needed to work off what they eat may be more effective at encouraging healthy eating habits than simply listing the calorie content, according to a new study.
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A review of evidence revealed that this type of labeling led to people consuming significantly fewer calories, compared with other types of labeling or no labeling at all.
Physical activity calorie equivalent or expenditure (Pace) labeling
The Royal Society for Public Health says most people do not understand the meaning of calorie intake in the context of energy expenditure.
The society has been calling for the introduction of "physical activity calorie equivalent or expenditure" (Pace) labeling, which estimates how many minutes of walking or running would be needed to burn off the calories in a given product. It says evidence suggests that 53% of people would change their behavior after reading front-of-pack PACE labeling.
The aim is to help people maintain healthier eating habits as a way of combatting the obesity epidemic.
New study supports the approach
Now, research from Loughborough University appears to support this approach, predicting that pace labeling could shave off an average of about 200 calories from a person's daily intake.
Although this may not sound like a lot, says the team, it would have a significant impact on obesity prevalence across the country.
"We're not suggesting that people don't eat, but certainly it might encourage people to take a healthier option when they know the amount of walking or running that they may need to complete to expend the calories in the food that they've chosen," says lead author Amanda Daley.
Previously, the food industry has used nutritional labeling to help inform consumers' choices, but with around two-thirds of the UK population still overweight or obese, experts suggest that adding PACE labeling could help combat the problem.
We are interested in different ways of getting the public to make good decisions about what they eat and also trying to get the public more physically active."
Lead author Amanda Daley, Loughbourough University
What did the study involve?
For the study, Daley and colleagues assessed the evidence that labeling food with "exercise calories" could nudge people into changing their eating habits.
After systematically reviewing 14 randomized controlled trials and experimental studies, they found that when Pace labeling was placed on food and drink items, people selected products containing 65 fewer calories per meal relative to comparator labeling. The new labeling system was also associated with an intake of 80 to 100 fewer calories, equating to around 200 calories per day.
Writing in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, the researchers concluded: "Pace labeling 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," they add.
Many people would be shocked if they realized how much exercise would be required
Daley says many people would be shocked to find out how much exercise is needed to burn off certain snacks and treats.
"We know that the public routinely underestimate the number of calories that are in foods," she said. "If you buy a chocolate muffin and it contains 500 calories, for example, then that's about 50 minutes of running."
The Royal Society for Public Health is calling for Pace labeling to be introduced as soon as possible, saying that many consumers would welcome it: "This type of labeling really does put an individual's calorie consumption in the context of energy expenditure and knowing how out of kilter we can be partly explains the record levels of obesity we face. Small changes can make a big overall difference to calorie consumption, and ultimately weight gain."
More research is needed
Daley and team warn that their review only covered a small number of studies, each of which varied in design and many of them not being conducted in real-life environments such as restaurants and supermarkets.
"I think there's still more we need to do in terms of more real-life studies, in real eating occasions," says Daley.
The effects of Pace labeling could change depending on the context, with marketing, pricing, and time constraints all likely to influence choices.
Deputy chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, Duncan Stephenson, says: "We would like to see further research to test if the effect on calorie consumption is sustained when Pace labeling is applied in other settings such as restaurants and supermarkets."
Daley hopes that a large food chain or company will be keen to implement the new Pace labeling system so that it can be tested in a "real life" trial.
"Although the difference Pace labeling makes may seem small, these small changes can make a big overall difference to calorie consumption, and ultimately weight gain," concludes Stephenson.
Daley, A.J. (2019). Effects of physical activity calorie equivalent food labelling to reduce food selection and consumption: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled studies. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. DOI: doi: 10.1136/jech-2019-213216