Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, believed that linking physical activity to the foods’ energy content may aid in reducing obesity rates in the UK and beyond.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, placed the UK top of the obesity league in 2013, prompting fears the country had become the 'fat man of Europe'
The UK currently has the highest level of obesity in Western Europe, ahead of countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Sweden, the report said.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, Cramer wrote that, "we desperately need innovative initiatives to change behaviour at population level."
Current information on food and drink packaging, such as traffic light labelling, has yielded little evidence that indicates a change in behaviour has been achieved.
She called for the introduction of "activity equivalent" calorie labelling, in which symbols could show the duration of selected physical activities that would need to be carried out in order to expend the product’s calories.
“The objective is to prompt people to be more mindful of the energy they consume and how these calories relate to activities in their everyday lives, and to encourage them to be more physically active," she said.
The society carried out a survey in which 44% of people found current front-of-pack information confusing.
This confusion may cause the buying public to make unhealthy choices. Such information needs to be as simple as possible so that the public can easily decide what to buy and consume in the average six seconds people spend looking at food before buying.
Previous research has revealed that people find symbols easier to understand than numerical information. Activity equivalent calorie labels have proved effective, particularly for groups who often lack nutritional knowledge and health literacy.
The survey also revealed that over half (53%) of those questioned would change their eating habits as a result of viewing activity equivalent calorie information.
“People can’t out-run a bad diet, and messages about the importance of healthy and varied eating must also continue,” she said.
“We have a responsibility to promote measures to tackle the biggest public health challenges facing our society, such as obesity.”
A spokesperson for the Food and Drink Federation echoed these comments stating that, ‘initiatives which reinforce the well understood calorie message and encourage people to be more active are to be encouraged.’
“Activity equivalent information is an interesting concept and the role it could play in driving meaningful behaviour change is certainly worth exploring. However, we believe further research is needed into whether activity equivalent calorie information could be an effective way of encouraging consumers to achieve a healthier lifestyle.”
Rules to display food info
Food packaging is governed by European legislation, and regulations now require mandatory nutrition declarations for most pre-packaged food.
In 2012, the European Commission published a new regulation on the provision of food information to consumers that was applicable to all member states of the European Union.
Here, food manufacturers had to provide information on the energy value featuring six nutrients - fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt – expressed per 100 g or per 100 ml of product.
This information should be presented in a nutrition table in the same field of vision (most likely to be the back of the pack), and could be expressed on a per portion basis.
Further nutrients (i.e. monounsaturates, polyunsaturates, polyols, starch, fibre, vitamins and minerals) could be included voluntarily.
In concluding her review, Cramer believed that any fundamental change to packaging harboured little appetite among European Union officials and food manufacturers.
“With this in mind, detailed research should explore the potential effects of activity labelling on consumer choices, including the potential harm.”
“If it’s shown to be an effective means of influencing consumers’ decisions, we would implore law makers and the industry to implement it to reduce obesity in the United Kingdom.”
Source: British Medical Journal
Published online ahead of print, doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i1856
“Food should be labelled with the exercise needed to expend its calories.”
Authors: Shirley Cramer