Should the Food We Buy Tell Us How Much Exercise We Need to Burn it Off?

Product packaging has gone through a number of changes over the years, but experts in the UK say it’s falling short when it come to helping us make better dietary choices.

The Royal Society for Public Health recently undertook a survey of 2,000 UK adults to ask them their opinions on product packaging, whether they find it informative and easy to read, and whether they feel confident in making lifestyle choices based on the current system of labeling.

The food labeling system that is currently in place is what’s known as a “traffic light” system that highlights categories like salt, fat, sugar and overall calorie content (among other categories depending on the product). These figures will be highlighted in red if the product is high on any of those categories, orange for medium, and green for a low figure. The idea behind this labeling is to help us all as we lead our busy lives make quick choices about the food we are about to consume.

However, this food labeling system has run into some problems. For example, some foods that are considered healthy for us — e.g., a sandwich that is packed with lots of vegetables and hummus — would score highly on the overall calorie and fat ratio. A diet soft drink that has a sugar replacement wouldn’t score at all despite having zero nutritional benefit.

The RSPH says that based on its survey, while the improved information labeling has helped create better awareness about the different factors in making healthy food choices, it is still hard for people to discern the overall healthiest choices for them. In addition, people say that this kind of labeling actually presents them with too much information, and because of those competing facts it often leaves them confused about the real nutritional worth of the food in their hands.

Fortunately, the RSPH thinks it has a solution. The health watchdog says it thinks “activity equivalent” labeling, that is labeling that communicates how much activity someone would need in order to burn off the calories present in the food they are consuming, would provide more adequate information for consumers.

For example, the RSPH notes that a person would have to walk for 26 minutes, or run for 13 minutes, in order to burn off the 138 calories contained in a typical 330ml soft drink. That information might deter people from taking the soda option if there are other choices on offer, such as a low sugar fruit water, that would take far less time to burn but be just as refreshing.

The RSPH says in a press release:

RSPH is pointing to ‘activity equivalent’ calorie labelling as a means of making nutritional information simpler, more comprehensible and relatable to everyone, by making use of symbols rather than numerical information alone. Previous studies have suggested this could help moderate calorie intake, and RSPH’s own research found two-thirds (63%) of people would support its introduction, with over half (53%) saying it would cause them to make positive behaviour changes such as choosing healthier products, eating smaller portions or doing more physical exercise.

Even so, how do we communicate that in an easily digestible fashion? One option that the BBC highlights here, would use two quick pictures, one for walking and one for running, with the figures alongside those pictures communicating the number of minutes needed to burn off the food product. Obviously this system isn’t perfect as some calorie dense foods can still be good for us, however the researchers believe that the worthwhile part of this scheme is making the public more aware of the connection between the food they are buying and how much they need to be moving to burn off that food.

What’s more, there’s no reason why this kind of labeling couldn’t compliment some form of the existing traffic light system, hopefully to give people a better idea about the foods they are consuming without overwhelming them.

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive, RSPH, is quoted as saying: “Although nutritional information provided on food and drink packaging has improved it is evident that it isn’t working as well as it could to support the public in making healthy choices. Activity equivalent calorie labelling provides a simple means of making the calories contained within food and drink more relatable to people’s everyday lives, while also gently reminding consumers of the need to maintain active lifestyles and a healthy weight.”

Like many Western nations, the UK is currently facing a mounting obesity problem with figures from 2014 showing that 61.7 percent of adults are now classed as overweight or obese. Accurate but accessible food labeling that can help people make healthy food choices is obviously only going to be one part of a solution, but getting people thinking about their food as fuel rather than just a source of pleasure and comfort is going to be key in combating our expanding waistlines.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

55 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Christina Klein
Christina Klein1 years ago

THX

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Christina Klein
Christina Klein1 years ago

NO!

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Peggy B.
Peggy B1 years ago

Uh..no. It would be nice, however, if this information was taught in schools as some people really don't have a clue.

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barry Werbowsky
barry Werbowsky1 years ago

What is needed is for a person to tell themselves to "Get up off their ASS and physically do something every hour and you will be just fine!!! *BIG SIGH!!* Thx

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Ullrich Mueller
Ullrich Mueller1 years ago

Sure, let us reduce personal responsibility for our lives to zero: perhaps people might want to use their grey matter before gulping down what the food industry put on their plates.

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Ullrich Mueller
Ullrich Mueller1 years ago

Sure, let us reduce personal responsibility for our lives to zero: perhaps people might want to use their grey matter before gulping down what the food industry put on their plates.

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Ullrich Mueller
Ullrich Mueller1 years ago

Sure, let us reduce personal responsibility for our lives to zero: perhaps people might want to use their grey matter before gulping down what the food industry put on their plates.

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caroline lord
caroline lord1 years ago

absolutely it should and in large print too

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Ron B.
Ron B1 years ago

I'd be surprised if this helped much. How many people even bother to read the fine print on packaging anyway?

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