Critics don’t think it would actually encourage healthier eating habits.

By Jelisa Castrodale
Updated December 16, 2019

Although you may not read the nutrition information every time you grab something from the supermarket shelf, you have a pretty good idea about what's on the label: things like calories, carbs, protein, and the percentage of potassium. But according to a group of British researchers, putting exercise suggestions on the back of wrapped sandwiches and cans of soda could be a way to make shoppers more aware of what we're putting in our bodies.

Professor Amanda Daley and a team from Loughborough University said that some simple graphics that explain that, say, it might take 26 minutes of walking to burn off the calories in a soda could be a simple way to make sense of what can be an otherwise confusing jumble of numbers.

"In that [time someone looks at a label] we’ve got to have something that you can easily understand and make sense of without having to have a PhD in mathematics to work out what [eating] a quarter of a pizza actually means,” she told The Guardian. "If I tell you something is going to take you 60 minutes of walking to burn, I think most people understand that and know that 60 minutes of walking is a long way.”

James Leynse/Getty Images

In their study, which was published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, Daley and her team said that people consumed about 65 fewer calories per meal when foods, beverages, or menus were marked with Physical Activity Calorie Equivalent (PACE) information. After doing the math, they calculated that people might eat 195 fewer calories per day if product labeling carried PACE suggestions.

There are some limitations to their findings, however. The PACE labels didn't seem to make a real difference when compared to other food labels, like those that listed the calorie count or the more complicated "traffic light" labels that use green, yellow, or red color-coding to illustrate the item's relative health value. It also hasn't tested the PACE labels in real-life situations in restaurants or supermarkets.

Critics of the research have suggested that PACE labeling could have a negative effect or even become unhealthy triggers. "We know that many people with eating disorders struggle with excessive exercising, so being told exactly how much exercise it would take to burn off particular foods risks exacerbating their symptoms," Tom Quinn from Beat, an eating disorder advocacy organization, told the BBC. "Policy makers looking to incorporate this change need to consider the impact that it may have on people's mental health."

A spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association added that PACE labels could be seen as ableist, as not everyone is physically capable of running or walking.

Daley has shrugged off some of those concerns, saying that it's just about giving people even more info about the foods that they're eating. "We are not disregarding people with eating disorders, but this is about educating the broader public," she said. "If you ask the public, they say that current food labelling is confusing. We have all different types of labels. Our view is that we need to put all the information in as clear a way as possible."

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