Should Food Labels Include Calorie Burn Time Equivalents

A team of researchers from the UK are recommending that labels on foods include the amount of exercise required to burn it off. The terminology used is, “activity-equivalent calorie labeling.” Shirley Cramer (chief executive for the Royal Society for Public Health in London) has recently commented on the subject in the British Medical Journal.  Calling labels too confusing for most people, she recommends a graphic that would illustrate how much activity you would need to burn off the calories you would consume from the product. The obvious goal would be to encourage healthier choices as a way to combat obesity which continues to grow. Overweight people now outnumber underweight people in America. The rest of the world particularly the UK is catching up. In China, a once starving populace, there are now 30 million overweight adolescents, though this is still only 10% compared to our 30%. 

Current Fast Food Labels

In 2010 President Obama signed a bill as part of the Affordable Care Act requiring food chains with more than 20 locations to post their caloric content on menus and drive-up signs. The reasoning here is that hopefully this information would lead to healthier choices. I know for myself, though I generally eat well, it was an eye opener. I still don’t understand how a grilled chicken sandwich at The Habit can have 730 calories. Guess that’s not happening anymore, at least not very regularly. Ouch. Some of the calorie counts I see around town affirm my suspicions, but others a bean and cheese burrito at Baja Fresh at 840 calories seems crazy. Add some steak and you’re looking at over a thousand calories; and don’t even get me started on the sodium. 

Detractors and Unintended Consequences

Activity-equivalent calorie labeling like most ideas has its detractors. One is Dr. Yoni Freedhoffthe medical director at a Bariatric center in Ottawa. “Exercise is the best drug, it’s just not a weight loss drug,” he says. He feels the majority of a person’s weight is determined by their eating habits.  Sara Haas (a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) doubts the labels would motivate people to exercise. She is also concerned that people may pick foods based on caloric count rather than nutritional value. For example someone might pick a candy bar with 280 calories versus an equivalent amount of fruit. Others still call the idea ridiculous. Susan Roberts senior scientist from Tuffs University feels the problem with weight control is that exercise isn’t always the solution; the focus should be healthier foods. It’s true there are those who think they can balance a bad or overly indulgent diet with copious amounts of exercise. In this case you are one injury or illness away from blowing that balance, not to mention that exercise doesn’t make up for a lack of proper nutrition.

The Evidence

Food Nutrition Label -Ultimate Health Personal Trainer Los Angeles - Hollywood

We are less than a year into the national implementation of Obama’s bill requiring caloric labeling in fast food and restaurant chains, however, states such as California and New York have done so for a number of years. When taken as a whole early preliminary statistics exhibited no significant change in the weight of the population nor the levels of obesity.  Drilling down deeper into the stats by breaking down Americans into three subgroups (normal weight, over weight and obese) Hunter College Researchers Partha Deb and Carmen Vargas found rather positive results. In all three subgroups men’s BMI was reduced after the introduction of caloric labels. In women the best results were for women in the overweight group while not at all or insignificant for the others.  Clearly the labels are working where they are needed most the overweight.

Researchers at Stanford University released a study based on transaction data from Starbucks in New York after the introduction of caloric labels. They found a 6% reduction in calories per transaction. Whereas beverage calories didn’t change significantly food related calories dropped by 14 %. In those that averaged more than 250 calories per transaction the total dropped by 26%.

In Baltimore, Maryland a study was conducted using 4 corner stores in a predominantly black neighborhood. 3 signs were posted near sugar sweetened beverages. One listed total calories, another percentage of total daily calories and the last activity equivalence. The purchase data followed adolescent (12-18) behavior. The results showed that listing caloric information as a percentage of daily value lowered SSB purchases by 40% and using activity expenditure graphics accounted for a 50% reduction.    

The Potential for Success

We know one thing, doing nothing will not help. I am a big believer that having more knowledge is better than having less. An informed discussion is always best. Another truth is that simplifying the consumption of that information makes it more likely to be used. To me the use of graphics seems ideal. They are both easy to see and consume. Take for example the use of infographics in social media. There is a reason why they are used so extensively by those wishing to inform as well as by companies wishing to promote. They are more eye catching, easier to impart data, faster to read and more fun. Why not use a method that today’s youth is extremely comfortable with.    

Another possible positive effect is that restaurants themselves will likely find ways to reduce their foods caloric totals. Also, anything that helps Americans move more is a plus for so many other health reasons.

Would It Work For You?

Do you think seeing activity-equivalent labeling would change your behavior or that of those around you? We hope to hear from you.

References: Food labels should include exercise needed to burn off calories Should food labels include calorie equivalents Calorie counts really do fight obesity Researches: How does posting calories affect behavior Reduction in sugar sweetened beverages