Thursday, December 22, 2011

Will Exercise Info on Food Labels Make Us Think Twice?

Food labels have come a long way in recent years in terms of the information they provide us with and the ease of their interpretation. The idea of having a clear and concise food label is to give more power to consumers (or is it accountability/blame?) that can help us make more informed decisions about the foods we choose to eat and the potential health outcomes that might be associated with eating those foods. However, despite all that, recent bodies of research have shown that plenty of consumers either don't pay attention to food labels or they still don't know how to read or understand them.

Given that obesity rates have been rising steadily annually, there has never been a more important time than the present to have a basic understanding of nutrition and follow a balanced diet with an appropriate amount of calories to maintain a healthy weight. So if people aren't paying attention to calories on food labels or don't know what those numbers mean for them specifically, maybe a provocative new idea trialed in a U.S. study will be of some use.

In a new study from Johns Hopkin's Bloomberg School of Public Health published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers tested out 3 different nutrition labels on sugary drinks to see how they impacted the number that teens purchased. One label just showed calorie information, another had calorie counts as a percentage of recommended daily intake and the third showed how long you would have to run to burn those calories off.

Since we already know that many people ignore or don't understand calorie information on food or beverage labels, it doesn't come as a total surprise that 'time spent jogging' elicits more of an immediate response from people when they're choosing what to eat or drink. Who wants to drink a 250 kcal bottle of soda and have to run for 50 minutes to burn it off?

The exercise times were calculated based on a 110lb teenager and jogging was chosen because many people don't like doing it and find it tough for any number of reasons. Plus, not too many people like the idea of spending nearly an hour of their valuable time doing something they don't enjoy or can otherwise avoid doing.

Although this study was just preliminary and only looked at the impact of these labels on teenagers, it's easy to guess what the implications might be for more diverse populations. Some critics argue that such a label might be a trigger for eating disorders and overly simplify nutrition concepts, but there are always pros and cons, risks and benefits to rolling out new programs. Ultimately, if more good than harm can be done in terms of better educating or informing consumers, this type of labeling might be a step in the right direction in helping people better manage their weight. Something tells me it will be a long while before we see something like this on our food labels, if ever. What's your take?

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