“Packaging should not only provide nutritional information, but should also help people to change their behavior,” Shirley Cramer, chief executive at the Royal Society of Public Health, says in an editorial in the April 6 The BMJ.
She explains the introduction of “activity equivalent” calorie labels that use symbols to show how many minutes of common physical activities it would take to burn the calories in a serving of food would “prompt people to be more mindful of the energy they consume.”
The idea is the activity equivalent label would place the number of calories, which is difficult for many people to grasp, in a context of activities in everyday life and encourage people to be more physically active.
“People find symbols much easier to understand than numerical information and activity equivalent calorie labels are easy to understand, particularly for lower socioeconomic groups who often lack nutritional knowledge and health literacy,” she writes.
She notes that initial studies of the labeling show it could motivate people to reduce their intake or modify their choice. Specifically, she writes, more than half of the people surveyed about the label said they would “positively change their behavior 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 counter obesity.”
These findings mirror the results of two previously published studies that found energy balancing labels at restaurants could be more persuasive than just calorie information in prompting consumers to more carefully consider what they order.
An imperfect, partial solution
Activity equivalent or energy balancing labels are not perfect – nor are they a silver bullet for obesity, Cramer said. But, it could be a good start.
“We won’t reduce obesity by focusing on diet or physical activity alone. People need to create a balanced relationship between the calories they consume and the calories they expend,” she said.
She added: “Messages about the importance of healthy and varied eating must also continue” as a counterbalance to other efforts.
Cramer also acknowledged concerns about unintentional negative consequences of energy balancing labels.
“Some concerns have been raised about activity equivalent calorie labeling and possible negative implications for people with eating disorders – but we have a responsibility to promote measures to tackle the biggest public health challenge facing our society, such as obesity,” she said.
Overall, she added, “activity labeling encourages people to start something rather than calling for them to stop,” which ultimately is empowering.