That chocolate bar will cost you 42 minutes of running

A new kind of food label hopes to fight obesity by stating how much exercise is required to burn it off.

Nutrition labels on packaged foods can be a tricky thing to navigate. There are so many nutrients and numbers that, unless you’re an expert in dietary science, it can feel daunting to decipher them. There have been numerous attempts to simplify nutrition labels – some more successful than others – but a new suggestion has potential to make a difference.

‘Physical activity calorie equivalent’ (PACE) labelling adds the type and amount of exercise required to ‘burn off’ a particular food. So, if you picked up a jar of peanut butter or a box of cookies, you could immediately see how many minutes of walking or running you’d need to offset the calories taken in with a typical serving. From a press release:

“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.”

PACE’s efficacy has been analyzed by researchers at Loughborough University in the UK. According to Reuters, they conducted 14 trials that “presented food or gave menus of food options to participants with and without PACE labeling, or the studies presented PACE labeling versus calories only or versus traffic light labeling.” Participants were then asked what they wanted to eat, based on this information.

The conclusion? Using labels with activity times “induced consumers to cut back nearly 65 calories per meal more than labels that simply listed calories.” These are, of course, clinical trials and not real-life settings, but it’s an interesting concept at the very least.

Some people are not convinced it’s a good idea, as it does not differentiate between quality of calories. In the words of Avigdor Arad, an endocrinologist at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s in New York City, “Certain foods are nutrient dense and also calorie dense. We don’t want people to develop a fear of consuming things like nuts, avocados, figs and certain legumes.” It could also be troublesome for people with eating disorders, who may already struggle with a perceived need to “earn” the calories they consume.

Its supporters argue that current labelling methods don’t seem to be helping much in the fight against obesity, and that adding PACE labels to existing labels (not replacing them) would provide the public with more information.

While I understand the reasoning behind it, I wonder about information overload. There’s already so much to navigate on typical food packaging that adding yet another measurement could lead a person simply to ignore it. Then there’s the issue of packaged foods in general: the foods we should all be eating more of are the ones that don’t come with food labels of any kinds – whole, fresh ingredients. Still, it’s an interesting proposal and one that no doubt we’ll be hearing more about.

A new kind of food label hopes to fight obesity by stating how much exercise is required to burn it off.

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