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Food labels should say how long people have to run

Food labels should say how long people have to run to burn off the calories -- UC research

October 22, 2012

A new University of Canterbury (UC) study has shown people want food labels to tell them how long they need to exercise to burn off the calories rather than just say how many calories in the item off the supermarket shelf.

UC researcher Michelle Bouton found that labels with just calories had little or no impact on people’s behaviour or intentions to exercise.

However, when the calories were converted into an exercise quotient – ‘you will need to jog for 40 minutes to burn off the calories in this chocolate bar’ - people’s perception of the food was very different. Bouton’s study involved 220 people who answered questions about food choices and future intentions to exercise.

She measured the effect on people with unhealthy foods (chocolate bars) and healthier foods (muesli bars) and in both instances, the exercise label was far more effective in encouraging future exercise, but it also made people feel more guilty.

Overall, the research showed that basic labelling is not effective in communicating the real impact of food that society consumes. Bouton found many people did not understand standard food labelling. However, exercise labelling was more understandable and worked as a strong deterrent to purchasing unhealthy foods.

The research was supervised by UC’s Dr Ekant Veer and Bouton said exercise-labelling could have a wide ranging impact for food labelling standards and educating New Zealand consumers about their food choices.

``My findings showed that the exercise labelling was significantly more effective in both chocolate and healthier muesli bars in encouraging consumers to exercise after consumption. It increased the likelihood of having higher feelings of guilt after consumption and was more likely to stop consuming the chocolate bar with the exercise labelling.

``From the study, 75 percent of participants said they read nutritional food labels. Of these 23 percent said it was because they were weight conscious and 36% said it was because they were health conscious.

``Eighty percent of participants wished that nutritional food labelling was easier to understand and 55 percent said they had no idea what 1700kj was in calories. From these findings it is evident that many consumers are lacking knowledge on how to read nutritional information correctly, and they would like to have a labelling system that is easier to understand.’’

The healthier muesli bar label said it would take 20 minutes of light jogging to burn off the calories while the chocolate bar said it would take 40 minutes of light jogging to run off the calories in that bar

The findings offered insights into why some people purchase so called healthy bars – even the healthiest of bars requires exercise to burn off the sugar contained within it. Some people flock to healthy options, but in reality, they don’t know what calories mean or what might be needed to burn off calories.

Dr Veer said people may be eating healthier foods, but not doing any exercise and their health not improving at all.

``We need to understand what the trade-off would be of having exercise based labelling. The increased guilt from the labels coupled with the pressure from some food bodies could mean that even though participants chose healthy options, we may never see these labels on our foods any time soon.

``However, with New Zealanders changing their attitudes towards more transparency in packaging, perhaps people would be open to such an option,’’ Dr Veer said.

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