The UK’s Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) is proposing to add exercise labels to food packaging. Earlier this month, BMJ published a research article encouraging the expansion of food labels to also include activities and times needed to expend the amount of calories consumed. This move is an attempt to increase awareness and impact of poor food choices and change consumers dietary habits for the better.
For many countries that are already grappling with the impact of obesity, the addition of exercise labels to food packaging would be the next step to help consumers change their relationship with food. Dr. Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the UK’s RSPH, claims that since food labels can be confusing, adding a “traffic light” to labels will grab consumers’ attention and focus them on the true caloric impact of foods.
But other health experts are skeptical this will work. Dr. Ruth Kava, Senior Nutrition Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health, points out that using figures on the exercise label based on average age, height, and weight and will make food labels even more difficult for a consumer to decipher and recalculate it so it applies to their measurements, age, and physical fitness. Furthermore, in a country where two-thirds of people are considered overweight or obese, like the U.K., adding an exercise label for an averaged sized person can be misleading.
Currently, there is little evidence that shows that changes in food labeling, like displaying calorie counts on menus in restaurant chains, have led consumers to make better food choices. Preliminary studies have indicated that with these changes the consumer does become more aware of the calories s/he is consuming and in turn may indicate their intent to do more physical activity to burn off the extra calories, but as to whether there will be actual follow-through of those intentions has not been measured — and that’s truly what counts.
Furthermore, calorie count is just one small part of the nutrition picture. Could an exercise label lead people to believe that it’s just fine to eat that candy bar, as long as they go for a bike ride later?
In an ideal world, the business of food manufacturers and distributors would be to provide all consumers equal access to healthy foods at affordable prices rather than focusing on yielding profits quarter after quarter at whatever cost to the consumer and the environment. Since this paradigm shift is not likely to happen in our lifetimes, it’s really up to us, the consumers, to do our part and make responsible food choices. Choosing whole, natural foods with short ingredients lists may do more good than any exercise label ever could.