Should Food Labels Tell You How Much Exercise To Do?

According to a new study, calorie labels should include the amount of physical exercise required to burn the food off. Researchers in the United Kingdom suggest it will actually be simpler to understand than the current traffic light system, making it more likely to support consumers avoiding high-calorie foods by illustrating what calorie counts mean in real life.

Physical activity calorie equivalent (PACE), in which consumers are shown examples of what it would take to burn off the calorie intake of a certain food, is nothing new. It’s currently popular in apps, but researchers are pushing for it to feature more widely. On nutrition labels, shoppers will be able to know how many minutes of exercise they would have to do to burn off everything they consume. A package might read: “Calories in this cake require 90 minutes of walking to burn off.”

This method illustrates how many minutes of exercise it would take to burn the calories in certain foods and drinks. The researchers showed that this new approach was easier for participants to understand – and may be more likely to help people avoid high-calorie foods.

But while these types of food labels have the benefit of being easier to understand, they could also run the risk of being misleading – and may not work for everyone. Alongside being easier to understand, the team from Loughborough also showed in a previous review that using exercise to illustrate the equivalent calories in food and drinks can help people consume fewer calories – around 65 fewer calories every time they ate – compared with other food labelling methods.

While this may not sound like much, over time it may help people over-eat less and may also result in them eating fewer high-calorie foods such as fast food. Other studies have shown that Pace may also help increase physical activity levels somewhat, which could be beneficial for those looking to be more active. Using exercise to illustrate the calories in food may therefore be a useful tool for consumers as it provides understandable, relatable information that may help them better plan their meals and workouts – potentially leading to healthier food choices while encouraging physical activity, both of which are key in reducing or preventing obesity.

While initial findings on exercise-based food labels seem promising, research is still needed in real-world settings and over longer periods of time if it’s going to inform future public health policy. Another clear pitfall of the Pace approach is that it generalises calories burnt. This means that the averages used on labels may not actually be true of how each person burns calories. A variety of factors – such as the type of exercise you’re doing, how intensely you’re exercising, your age and fitness level – all influence the amount of calories you burn. The way we digest and metabolise foods is also highly individual.

This could mean that general food labels could be deceptive. It’s unlikely that the calories estimated to be burnt on the packet will apply to everyone. This could lead to some people eating more or less food than they need.

Another reason the information on these labels could be misleading is that it makes the assumption that all calories consumed are equal. For example, two foods with the same calorie content may have different levels of fibre, fat, sugars or protein. All of these are metabolised differently, which will influence how our foods are used and stored by our body. Low-fibre, high-sugar, energy-dense foods, for example, have been associated with weight gain compared with healthier options containing a similar number of calories.

Pace labels could also inadvertently encourage people to eat more poor-quality or ultra-processed foods, as they may feel they can just exercise to burn those calories off. However, unhealthy, ultra-processed foods can still cause harm to the body, even if the calories in them are used. Other experts feel that such types of food label will only have a short-term effect in changing food choices. Another concern is that Pace could trigger eating disorders or over-exercise in susceptible populations. It could also lead people to eat less so they can avoid doing the exercise required to burn off additional calories.

Until now the public’s view of PACE packaging was lacking. So Daley’s team spoke to 2,668 people from an Ipsos’ KnowledgePanel to compare their views about traffic lights versus PACE labelling. Participants had to state which they preferred, found easier to understand, and were the most eye-catching. In the end most preferred the traffic light system, with 43 percent of participants siding with it. Just 33 percent favoured PACE labelling. That said, most acknowledged PACE was easier to understand: 41 percent versus 27 percent. Likewise 49 percent voted PACE was more likely to catch their attention compared to 31 percent for the traffic lights.

Physically active participants also found PACE more eye-catching. Those who exercised over three times a week found it grabbed their attention more than people who were active a couple times a week. Conversely, older participants wanted to stick to the original calorie presentation. Over-65s were 40 percent less likely to choose PACE than young people. The group suggested PACE should be placed on food like chocolates versus everyday food items like bread, pasta, fruit and vegetables.

Putting PACE on labels in fast food chains, supermarkets, carryout menus, and vending machines was also preferred because of their typically high calorie options on offer. The team is planning to begin trialling PACE labelling in cafeterias and vending machines. “Our findings highlight that PACE labelling is a potentially important policy-based approach to strengthen current approaches to food labelling,” the authors write. “The next steps are to test whether PACE labeling reduces the purchases of high calorie foods and drinks in different food settings such as restaurants, vending machines, coffee shops and pubs.”


Food Labelling in Australia

English researchers who developed the “physical activity calorie equivalent” (Pace) labelling system, which suggests how many minutes of walking or running would “burn off” the food after it’s eaten, presented their research at an obesity conference in Melbourne, saying it shows the labelling encourages people to consume fewer calories when compared to other systems. The researchers say the Pace system could complement Australia’s health star rating, which gives packaged food items a rating from half a star to five stars based on its nutritional value.

Amanda Daley, a professor of behavioural medicine at Loughborough University in the UK and one of the researchers behind Pace, said many Australians ate too much and did not get enough physical activity, which caused them to gain weight. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures from 2017-18 showed 67% of adults were overweight or obese, an increase from 63.4% in 2014-15. If the current trend continued, more than 18 million Australians would be overweight or obese by 2030.

“People underestimate the number of calories in food and don’t understand what calories mean as it’s just a number on the packet or menus – there is no context or meaning to this number,” Daley said. Pace labelling “converts the number of calories in food into a context that makes it easier for the public to understand and therefore to make a decision about whether to purchase or eat foods or drinks”.

But the idea could feed into “problematic” diet cultures, according to Danni Rowlands, from the Butterfly Foundation, a charity that provides support for people affected by eating disorders and body image issues. She said anything encouraging people to start watching, counting and burning off what they eat changes their relationship with food.

“This real black-and-white notion that what we eat needs to be burnt off [is] a very very problematic and dangerous message for anyone of any age, but particularly young people and those who are vulnerable to developing eating disorders or disordered eating,” she said. “We’re not looking at fuel holistically and food holistically. Yes, it’s there to fuel movement but it’s also there to fuel all our energy systems.” The executive director of the Body Confident Collective, Dr Zali Yager, said she would be “horrified” to see this labelling introduced on Australian shelves. “[This is] yet another example of trying to use shame to motivate health behaviour,” Yager said. “It hasn’t worked over the past 20 years and I don’t think it’s going to work now.”

Labelling foods and drinks with the amount of exercise needed to burn them off may certainly have some benefits. However, it’s clear that a one-size-fits-all approach may be too simplistic when it comes to tackling obesity in a population. This is especially true when considering that every person’s diet, activity levels, lifestyle habits and even genetics are different from the next.

As such, strategies for reducing obesity should aim to take a more individualised approach to helping people increase their total daily movement and activity, while also helping them evaluate their eating patterns and portion sizes, as well as choosing better-quality foods.