LOUGHBOROUGH, England — Calorie labels should include the amount of physical exercise required to burn the food off, according to a new study. Sound like a bit too much? 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.”
However, the general public in the UK, where researchers polled individuals, aren’t sold on the idea.
Despite the majority thinking it would help them avoid high calorie food versus the traffic lights, they overwhelmingly wanted to stick to the traffic lights. “Nutritional labels support people to make food choices and traffic light labelling is the UK standard,” says study co-author Amanda Daley, a professor at Loughborough University, in a statement. “However, many people do not understand the meaning of kilocalories (kcals or calories) or grams of fat displayed on food labels, and often underestimate the number of calories when labeling is not provided.”
How does the general public feel about putting PACE labels on food packages?
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 favored PACE labeling. 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 trialing PACE labeling in cafeterias and vending machines.
“Our findings highlight that PACE labeling is a potentially important policy-based approach to strengthen current approaches to food labeling,” 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.”
Daley and her team are presenting their research at the International Congress on Obesity in Melbourne.
South West News Service writer Pol Allingham contributed to this report.