What If We Put Physical Activity On The Food Label?

This week I was handed the honor of writing my company’s monthly blog post on the Department of Health and Human Services Be Active Your Way Blog. I decided to write about health literacy month (that’s this month), and started thinking about ways to help people better understand nutrition information. Health literacy is often discussed in terms of medical diagnoses and clinical treatments, but I think it has relevance here too. I mean, if I discussed all that was wrong with the food label, I wouldn’t have any time to make my point. So I’ll just say that it is confusing to many Americans for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it’s actually very difficult for a lot of people to quantify calorie information. That 200 calories always looks so innocent on the food label until you realize you just wasted 10% of your calorie budget on 12 tortilla chips.

The FDA is working on updating the food label, with new features such as realistic portion sizes (unless you think eating 1/3 of a candy bar at a time is realistic) and a new “added sugar” line, so consumers could see how much sugar occurs naturally in an item and how much is added to get you addicted to that food improve the product for consumers. But those changes don’t make calories on a label any easier to understand in real world context. 

But there may be some new hope. This week a study published in the American Journal of Public Health used placement of signs in West Baltimore corner stores with messaging like “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?” or “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about five miles of walking?” to assess the impact of using exercise data on customer behavior. The signs worked, resulting in fewer purchases of soda or juice and more purchases of smaller portion sizes – meaning more people chose the 12 ounce can over the 20 ounce bottle.  These findings corroborated other research (like here and here) demonstrating a similar effect. Brilliant! Help people understand the context of the food/beverage they are having by quantifying calories as the activity required to burn them off.

So what would happen if all food labels included a line on exercise? Well, I’d like to think this bonus information would translate to more people understanding their food label. I’d like to think that would lead to a decline in the portion and amount of sugar sweetened beverage, fast food, sweets, and junk food Americans ate. I’d like to think it would help them choose fruit, jerky, or nuts over other less healthful options. Or that more people would visit their gyms more often, as they make the informed choice to enjoy a cupcake at lunch and pay for it with an afternoon WOD or run or whatever activity they enjoy.

I also see problems with this idea. Namely:

  • It would cost companies a lot of money to change their labels, and time to research the new information (and the companies would fight back viciously).
  • Your body needs calories – not everything needs to be “burned off” with exercise (your body will take care of some of that by simply functioning).
  • It could backfire in helping people choose healthy options –  I certainly wouldn’t want someone to choose crackers over almonds for a snack because it takes less time to “walk it off” a portion.
  • Implications for people with disordered eating or diagnosed eating disorders –  this kind of information could compel someone struggling with their body image to feel as though they are being told “you must exercise more” whenever they eat something. And with eating disorders on the rise in young people, this is a big concern.
  • These levels are just estimates – the amount of energy a person burns off doing a given activity varies by age, weight, and other factors. (The estimate used in the study were based on 15 year old boys weighing 110 lbs).
  • This extra label does not provide any information about macronutrient makeup, vitamins, or other factors that make one food a healthier option than another.

So what do you think? Personally, if this was ever implemented, I’d really only like to see it on certain foods – like soda, chips, candy, etc. I think putting this information on bread, chicken breast, or frozen vegetables is over-kill. But in certain contexts I think this information could be very helpful – especially for those with minimal baseline nutrition knowledge, and kids and teens.

You can read my original post on the HHS Blog, and share your thoughts to comments!

Photo c/o dory kornfeld

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