Report suggests food labels could encourage more physical activity and reduce risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes.
New labels on food packaging that suggest and advise how much exercise would be needed to burn off the amount of calories consumed have been proposed following a study by researchers aiming to encourage healthier eating.
Existing labels on packaged food include information such as the number of calories and grams of fat.
Previous studies have suggested however that many people do not know what these measures mean – and researchers suggested the labelling could change eating habits and reduce the risk of becoming obese and developing related health complications including type 2 diabetes.
A study by researchers from Loughborough University, Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Birmingham and recently published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health suggested converting calories into the amount of exercise needed to burn them off.
Researchers said: “Physical activity calorie equivalent (PACE) food labelling aims to provide the public with information about the amount of physical activity required to expend the number of kilocalories in food/drinks (e.g., calories in this pizza requires 45 minutes of running to burn), to encourage healthier food choices and reduce disease.”
The study added labels to food packaging explaining that you would need to run for example 13 minutes after drinking a 330ml can of fizzy drink; 22 minutes after eating a standard size chocolate bar; and 42 minutes after eating a shop-bought chicken and bacon sandwich.
Researchers hoped people would be encouraged to choose less calorific foods or eat less of them.
Researchers compared the results of previous trials of exercise labelling (called PACE, for physical activity calorie equivalent) to no labelling or other nutritional labelling.
The results found that people selected less calories and ate less calories when their food choice included the PACE labelling.
Researchers concluded: “Based on current evidence PACE food labelling may reduce the number of kilocalories selected from menus and decrease the number of kilocalories/grams of food consumed by the public, compared with other types of food labelling/no labelling.”
“The findings emphasise the potential of easily understood food labels to reduce the calorie intake of the population by facilitating increased selection of lower calorie foods and decreased selection of higher calorie ones.”
An NHS Behind the Headlines analysis of the study concluded: “Most people become overweight or obese by consuming a few more calories every day than they burn off in daily activities. It sounds logical that people might think twice if they were aware of how much exercise is needed to burn off different types of food. But while this study suggests PACE labelling may help, the study is not conclusive.
“Comparing PACE labelling with other types of labelling did not show conclusively that PACE labelling worked best, although it was better than no labelling. There were also problems with the studies included, which makes the overall results difficult to rely on. Methods of allocating people to PACE or other labelled foods was unclear in most studies, and there were wide variations between study results.
“Most of the studies were carried out in laboratory conditions, rather than in restaurants, shops or cafes where people make real-world choices. That means the effect of prices and marketing were not taken into account. There is also the likelihood that people would get used to seeing PACE labels if they were introduced, and perhaps take less notice of them over time. PACE labels are only able to give an estimate of the number of calories that would be burnt by someone of an average weight performing each exercise, but this is highly variable. It depends on factors such as exercise intensity and a person's build.
“It is also important to remember that we need calories just to keep our bodies working. The recommended daily intake is around 2,000 calories for an average woman and 2,500 for an average man. While it's important to be active and exercise, it is not necessary to exercise to burn off all the calories from the food you eat.
“Additionally, calories are not the only nutritional aspect to consider. For example, a small bag of sweets might have less calories than a chicken and salad sandwich, but the nutrients from the sweets would not be as useful as those from the chicken and salad.
“While PACE labelling might be an extra tool to help people consider making better food choices, it is not the full answer to a healthy diet and is unlikely to singlehandedly tackle the UK's obesity epidemic.”