A vision for the future of labels

The Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) is calling for the addition of ‘activity equivalent’ information to food and drink labels in a bid to reduce obesity.

Writing in the BMJ, RSPH chief executive Shirley Cramer discusses the idea of labelling food with the equivalent exercise to expend its calories to help people change their behaviour, and says the link between the energy content of food and physical activity might help to reduce obesity.

“We desperately need innovative initiatives to change behaviour at population level,” she argues. “Given its simplicity, activity equivalent calorie labelling offers a recognisable reference that is accessible to everyone.”

RSPH research suggests that 44 per cent of people find current front of pack information confusing, she writes, and little evidence indicates that the current information on packaging – including traffic light labelling – changes consumer behaviour.

Cramer explains that new symbols could show the minutes of several different physical activities – such as running, cycling and swimming – that would be equivalent in calories expended to the calories in the product (see images above and below for examples).

The idea is certainly an interesting one and the society acknowledges that messages of the importance of healthy and varied eating must also continue, and takes on board concerns about possible negative implications for people with eating disorders.

Tim Rycroft, corporate affairs director at the Food and Drink Federation, has called the idea an ‘interesting concept’ which is ‘certainly worth exploring’, but notes that further research is needed and European packaging legislation would need to be considered.

“Weight gain occurs when more calories are consumed than are burned during physical activity,” he notes. “For this reason, initiatives which reinforce the well understood calorie message and encourage people to be more active are to be encouraged.

“As an industry, we are looking at what more we can do to help people use the existing nutrition information provided to understand how different foods and drinks fit within a healthy lifestyle. Activity equivalent information is an interesting concept and the role it could play in driving meaningful behaviour change is certainly worth exploring.

“However, we believe further research is needed into whether activity equivalent calorie information could be an effective way of encouraging consumers to achieve a healthier lifestyle. EU rules which dictate what companies can and cannot put on their food labels would need to be considered in any proposals to add to on-pack information.”

What are your thoughts on activity equivalent labelling? Have your say below.

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