As health consciousness has become more universal, most people now have some sense of the number of calories in their food. But what do those calories really mean, beyond some vague sense of how many you should be eating in a day? How about this proposal: Food packaging should be labeled with “activity equivalent” information, says the Royal Society for Public Health’s Shirley Cramer. Instead of a plain calorie count, a food’s packaging “should show the exercise needed to expend its calories.”
“We desperately need innovative initiatives to change behavior at population level, says Cramer in an interview with Science Daily, noting that previous efforts at making information easier to digest have failed. “Little evidence has shown that the current information on food and drink packaging, including ‘traffic light’ labeling, actually changes behavior,” she writes in her report, published in the British Medical Journal.
U.K. polls have shown that almost half of all shoppers find current labeling confusing. The answer, says Cramer, may be symbols that tell you how much exercise you’ll need to do to burn off the calories in the food. If you ever counted calories as a way to lose weight, you’ll know how surprising this information is the first time you see it, with seemingly small amounts of food taking a lot longer to burn off than you expected. “For example,” says the study, “the calories in a can of [soda] take a person of average age and weight about 26 minutes to walk off.”
This labeling change would have other positive effects, not just the avoidance of calorific foods. It could encourage exercise, something which is good for more than just expending calories. Exercise has been shown, for example, to be really, really good for your brain, and Cramer’s report cites studies that say regular exercise “boosts self-esteem, mood, sleep quality, and energy levels, and reduces the risk of stress, depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.”
There is one other big change in activity equivalent labeling. It encourages the consumer to do something, instead of telling them what they shouldn’t do. This alone could have an effect on our relationship with the food we eat.
Cramer’s labeling scheme seems very smart. The problem will be in compliance. To be useful, all foods should be labeled in the same way, which means legislation and regulation, two things that the food industry and its powerful lobbies hate. Get past that, though, and we could finally have found a useful way to label food. At the very least, you’ll know that you should buy your sugary soft drinks from a store no less than a 13-minute walk away.