Activity equivalent calorie labelling to fight obesity

Calorie icons

The activity equivalent calorie labelling has pictorial icons that show the minutes of several different physical activities that would be required to burn off the calories. – Photo: Royal Society of Public Health

If pictorial warnings on tobacco products help in effectively conveying the harsh reality of the effects of tobacco and increase the awareness among users and potential users, there is a strong case to change the way food items are labelled too.  Instead of merely stating that a particular food item has certain amount of calories, there is a greater possibility that people would change their eating habits if the labels contained information on equivalent exercise required to burn the calories contained in the food item, the Royal Society of Public Health, U.K., says.

“Giving consumers an immediate link between foods’ energy content and physical activity might help to reduce obesity,” Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive at the Royal Society of Public Health writes in The BMJ.

There is little information that current information found on food and drink packaging, including “traffic light” labelling, has any effect on consumption behaviour.  “Packaging should not only provide nutritional information but should also help people to change behaviour,” she notes.

The Royal Society for Public Health has called for the introduction of “activity equivalent” calorie labelling.  The prominent pictorial icons placed alongside existing front-of-pack information would contain symbols that show the minutes of several different physical activities that would be required to burn off the calories individuals consume in the product. “The aim is to prompt people to be more mindful of the energy they consume and how these calories relate to activities in their everyday lives, to encourage them to be more physically active,” she writes.

“Those from lower socioeconomic societal groups often have lower nutritional knowledge and health literacy. Information on food must be presented in a medium that can be understood by all sections of society, regardless of social class or economic situation. It is known that consumers understand symbols more easily than numeric information which suggests activity equivalent calorie labels may provide an easier reference for people less able to decipher current front-of-pack labels,” the RSPH position paper notes.

For example, instead of merely stating that a can of carbonated drinks contains 138 calories, mentioning that it would take a person of average age and weight about 26 minutes of walk to burn 138 calories contained in the can of drink will be direct and more effecting. “Given its simplicity, activity equivalent calorie labelling offers a recognisable reference that is accessible to everyone,” Cramer writes.

“Initial studies show that this approach can change behaviour by reducing intake or modifying choice” she notes. The Royal Society of Public Health got important and positive feedback from people on activity equivalent labelling. For instance, public polling by the society has shown that almost half (44 per cent) of people find current front of pack information confusing. And almost two-third (63 per cent) of people said they would support the introduction of activity equivalent labelling.

After viewing activity equivalent calorie labels compared with current traffic light front-of-pack information, people were over three times more likely to indicate that they would undertake physical activity. A body of evidence indicates that even a modest increase in physical activity can have significant health benefits. For instance, a brisk 20 minute walk each day has the potential to lower a person’s risk of premature death by between 16-30 per cent.

The public consultation also found that more than over half (53 per cent) said that they would positively change their behaviour as a result of viewing activity equivalent calorie information — by choosing healthier products, eating smaller portions, or doing more physical exercise, all of which could help to counter obesity. “Although we don’t know about actual behaviour change, initial consultations show promising intentions,” Cramer notes.

She admits that it would not be possible to reduce obesity by focusing on diet or physical activity alone. Instead, “people need to create a balanced relationship between the calories they consume and the calories they expend.” And there can be no better way than placing that information right on the food packaging.  It could be a “logical solution to a multifaceted problem” and the benefits will go a long way and beyond maintaining a health weight.

“The public is used to being told to avoid particular drinks and to cut down on specific foods. By contrast, activity labelling encourages people to start something, rather than calling for them to stop,” Cramer writes.

Published in The Hindu on April 10, 2016






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