Running exercise

Food and drink should be labelled with “activity equivalent” information to show how much exercise consumers would need to do to burn off the calories, according to an article published in the BMJ today.

Author Shirley Cramer, chief executive at the Royal Society of Public Health, claims that labelling such as the front of pack traffic light system has failed and that giving consumers an immediate link between foods’ energy content and physical activity would be a better way to combat obesity.

“We desperately need innovative initiatives to change behaviour at population level,” said Cramer.

“The objective is to prompt people to be more mindful of the energy they consume and how these calories relate to activities in their everyday lives, and to encourage them to be more physically active.”

She suggested symbols could show the minutes of several different physical activities that would be equivalent in calories expended to the calories in the product.

For example, the calories in a can of fizzy drink takes a person of average age and weight about 26 minutes to walk off. “Given its simplicity, activity equivalent calorie labelling offers a recognisable reference that is accessible to everyone,” she said.

Public polling by the society has shown that almost half (44%) of people find current front of pack information confusing.

And more than half (53%) said that they would positively change their behaviour as a result of viewing activity equivalent calorie information, including choosing healthier products, eating smaller portions or doing more physical exercise.

“We have a responsibility to promote measures to tackle the biggest public health challenges facing our society, such as obesity,” added Cramer.

Industry response

Tim Rycroft, corporate affairs director at the Food and Drink Federation, said: “Weight gain occurs when more calories are consumed than are burned during physical activity. 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.”