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Food labels should show calorie burn

Labelling food and drinks with the amount and type of physical activity needed to burn off the calories in it might be a more effective way of encouraging people to make “healthier” dietary choices, according to research led by Loughborough University.

Physical activity calorie equivalent (PACE) food labelling shows how many minutes or miles of physical activity are needed to burn off the calories in a particular food or drink. For example, eating 230 calories in a small bar of chocolate would require about 46 minutes of walking or 23 minutes of running.

The experts, led by Loughborough’s Professor Amanda Daley, with colleagues from the Universities of East Anglia and Birmingham, calculated that if PACE labelling was widely applied, on average it might shave off up to 200 calories per person per day.

Given the current system of food labelling by calorie and nutrient content is “poorly understood”, and there’s little evidence that it is altering food consumption or purchasing decisions, it may be worth trying, they said.

The project team examined research databases and other relevant online resources for studies that compared PACE labelling with other types of food labelling (or no labelling) for potential impact on the selection, purchase, or consumption of food and drink products (excluding alcohol).

They found 15 relevant randomised controlled studies and pooled the data from 14 of them. The results, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, showed that when PACE labelling was displayed on food and drink items and on menus, on average significantly fewer calories – around 65 less per meal – were selected. PACE labelling was also associated with the consumption of around 80 to 100 fewer calories than no food labelling and other types of labelling.

But they cautioned that the number of included studies was small, and the design of each varied. Most were not carried out in real life settings, such as restaurants and supermarkets.

Nevertheless, PACE labelling shows some promise said Professor Daley. “It is a simple strategy that could be easily included on food and drinks packaging by manufacturers, on shelving price labels in supermarkets, and/or in menus in restaurants/fast-food outlets.”

The UK Royal Society for Public Health has already called for PACE labelling to replace the current food labelling system, but to date there’s been little strong evidence to back this stance.

“Our own research showed that using this type of labelling did make people think twice about the calories they were consuming, and when compared with other forms of labelling, people were over three times more likely to indicate that they would undertake physical activity,” said RSPH deputy chief executive Duncan Stephenson.

“We would like to see further research to test if the effect on calorie consumption is sustained when PACE labelling is applied in other settings such as restaurants and supermarkets,” he added.