- Noting on food and drink labels how much and the type of exercise needed to burn off calories contained in the products could help reduce obesity and encourage consumers to make healthier dietary choices, according to a new study led by Loughborough University in England. For example, 230 calories from a small chocolate bar requires about 46 minutes of walking or 23 minutes of running, a university release noted.
- Researchers analyzed 15 studies to see how physical activity calorie equivalent (PACE) labeling influenced selection, purchase or consumption of food and drink products. The impact of PACE labels was compared with other types of food labeling or no labeling to draw conclusions, they said.
- When PACE labels were displayed on food and drink items and on restaurant menus, researchers said fewer calories on average — 65 less per meal — were chosen and consumed than under current or no labeling.
This U.K. research isn't the first to find people may limit the number of calories they purchase and consume if they have access to PACE labels. A U.S. study published in 2015 reported 40% of 1,000 adults from 47 states said, when compared to calorie-only labels, they were very likely to be influenced by PACE labels when ordering fast food meals, and 64% said such labels were somewhat or very likely to have an impact on their level of physical activity.
Among the disadvantages of the current system of showing calorie and nutrient contents, the researchers from Loughborough stated, is that it's not well understood and there isn't a lot of evidence to show it has changed consumer behavior. However, according to a recent study from Tufts University, labels in general may help consumers make healthier food choices in some categories. In that study, they saw people reduce caloric intake by 6.6%, fat by 10.6% and other unhealthy food options by 13%. Vegetable consumption was boosted 13.5% because of labeling, that study found.
In addition, the PACE study in the U.K. had its own limitations that the researchers noted, including the small number of studies they examined and that the respective designs varied. The studies also typically weren't conducted in real life environments such as supermarkets and restaurants. But the initial findings were promising in calorie reduction, which could in turn help curb rising obesity levels.
If the research were to be applied in the U.S. to make policy changes, the FDA would first need to approve PACE labeling to augment the current rule, which could meet resistance from manufacturers and retail establishments like restaurants and grocery stores. Revising labels can be a costly and resource-heavy endeavor and, especially in the fast food segment, sway diners from consuming their offerings. On the other hand, companies that made the shift might be viewed as encouraging healthier dietary choices, which could help them win over new customers looking for better-for-you options.
Another potential drawback could be label fatigue from too much information and too many symbols — such as non-GMO, gluten-free, kosher and heart-healthy — on product packaging. Also, not everyone understands what the information and symbols mean, so manufacturers and retailers would probably have to expand marketing efforts to explain anything new.