Will Food Labels Connecting Calorie Count to Physical Activity Change Human Eating Habits?

Food labels are important. They tell us not only the nutritional information of the food we eat but also list the ingredients, informing us of potential allergens, sensitivities, or other facts that help us make sound dieting decisions. 

A new study, however, advises that adding information about how much exercise it will take to burn off the calories might encourage healthier food choices.  Known as the physical activity calorie equivalent/expenditure (PACE), this food labeling might be helpful but some criticize that it could be triggering for those who have eating disorders. 

Regardless, the new label concept is still being recommended, partly because many consumers do not really understand calories or fat levels as they are listed on present food labels. This is particularly true when it comes to the “energy balance” (what the PACE index is supposed to satisfy). 

Professor Amanda Daley describes, “The evidence shows that even a relatively small reduction in daily calorie intake (100 calories) combined with a sustained increase in physical activity is likely to be good for health and could help curb obesity at the population level. PACE labeling may help people achieve this.”

Now, it should be noted that the effects of PACE labeling could—and, probably, should—vary by context.  Marketing, time constraints, and price of the item are all likely to affect buying choices. 

The lead study author goes on to say, “Public health agencies may want to consider the possibility of including policies to promote it as a strategy that contributes to the prevention and treatment of obesity and related diseases.”

In addition, Royal Society for Public Health deputy chief executive Duncan Stephenson welcomes the new research.  He touts that it builds a strong case for introducing this respective activity equivalent on labels.  He also notes their research provides similar evidence that appropriate labeling does make people think twice about what they are eating. More importantly, this type of labeling appears to be upwards of  thrice as effective at communicating the relationship between calories and activity. 

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