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Physical activity labelling linked to healthier food choices

Labels stating level of physical activity needed to burn off foods and beverages may encourage healthier choices

Ingrid Torjesen

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Labelling food and drink with the amount and type of exercise needed to burn off the calories in them might be a more effective way of encouraging people to make 'healthier' dietary choices, suggests research* published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Given that the current system of food labelling by calorie and nutrient content is poorly understood, and there is little evidence that it is altering purchasing decisions or having any impact on obesity levels, this different approach to labelling may be worth trying, suggest the researchers.

Physical activity calorie equivalent or expenditure (PACE) food labelling aims to show how many minutes or miles of physical activity are needed to burn off the calories in a particular food or drink.

For example, eating 229 calories in a small bar of milk chocolate would require about 42 minutes of walking or 22 minutes of running to burn these off.

The UK Royal Society for Public Health has already called for PACE labelling to replace the current system, but to date, there's been little strong evidence to back this stance.

For this study, researchers trawled research databases and other relevant online resources for studies that compared PACE labelling with other types of food labelling or none for potential impact on the selection, purchase, or consumption of food and drinks (excluding alcohol).

They found 15 relevant randomised controlled trials, and pooled the data from 14 of them. The results showed that when PACE labelling was displayed on food and drink items and on menus, on average, significantly fewer calories - 65 fewer per meal - were selected. PACE labelling was also associated with the consumption of 80 to 100 fewer calories than no food labelling, or other types of labelling.

Based on their findings, and average consumption of three meals a day plus two snacks, the researchers suggested that PACE labelling might potentially cut around 200 calories off daily intake per person.

But they cautioned, the number of included studies was small, and the design of each varied considerably. Most weren't carried out in real life settings, such as restaurants and supermarkets.

Nevertheless, they concluded: "PACE labelling shows some promise in reducing the number of kilocalories (calories) selected from menus, as well as the number of calories and the amount of food (grams) consumed."

The evidence shows that even a relatively small reduction in daily calorie intake (100 calories) combined with a sustained increase in physical activity is likely to be good for health and could help curb obesity at the population level, they said, adding that PACE labelling may help people achieve this.

"PACE labelling is a simple strategy that could be easily included on food/beverage packaging by manufacturers, on shelving price labels in supermarkets, and/or in menus in restaurants/fast-food outlets," they said. "Public health agencies may want to consider the possibility of including policies to promote [it] as a strategy that contributes to the prevention and treatment of obesity and related diseases."


*Daley AJ, McGee E, Bayliss S, et al. Effects of physical activity calorie equivalent food labelling to reduce food selection and consumption: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled studies. J Epidemiol Community Health Published Online First: 10 December 2019. doi: 10.1136/jech-2019-213216

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