Matchbox Label

Hypothetical Food Labeling, Hypothetical Effects

Food labeling is quite an attractive tool for preventing obesity. Let’s help people make good, informed choices! That’s the commendable thinking behind this approach. This week, a special variant on food labeling is getting a lot of attention in the media. It’s called PACE – physical activity calorie equivalent – labeling. England’s Royal Society of Public Health has been a big fan for years. But the news this week is flowing from a meta-analysis of research on this labeling. It’s labeling that tells you how much exercise you’ll have to do to burn off the calories in the food.

The authors are bullish. It’s a “simple strategy” and current labels aren’t working to reduce obesity, they say. So why not give it a try?

Less Than Compelling

Despite all this enthusiasm, we see plenty of reason for skepticism. First of all, you should read the paper. The evidence is not compelling. This is a compilation of short-term studies in artificial situations. What we’re seeing is the measurement of a hypothetical effect for a hypothetical label.

On top of that, if you look at the summary of the studies they included, many of those studies found no effect. The ones that did show an effect were mostly comparisons to having no calorie labeling at all.

The authors concede that the evidence is thin:

As most of the included studies adopted hypothetical eating methodologies/scenarios, this research constitutes evidence of efficacy rather than effectiveness.

This research is in its “infancy,” they write.

Reasons for Caution

On the other hand, some people are expressing reasons for caution. Beth Kitchin says:

I hate the idea of putting this kind of information on food packaging. First of all, the idea that we have to burn off the calories from every food we eat with exercise is just flat out wrong.

She goes on to suggest that this might set up a “horrible mindset for anyone with a tendency towards eating disorders and for everyone else who wants to have a happy, healthy relationship with food.” Kitchin is an assistant professor of nutrition at UAB.

Writing in the Guardian, John Evans calls this a sledgehammer approach to a nuanced and very personal problem:

I appreciate that tackling obesity is an important issue, especially with regard to children, but even if some people were persuaded to change their behaviour by this scheme, I would suggest that the collateral damage to others in my situation would be very considerable.

All in all, we do need thoughtful and helpful approaches to food labeling. But we also need to be realistic. Food labeling is unlikely to give us a home run for addressing obesity. And unintended consequences can crop up. Hypothetical benefits aren’t good enough for promoting public health.

Click here for the study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Matchbox Label, illustration from Patricia M / flickr

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December 13, 2019

2 Responses to “Hypothetical Food Labeling, Hypothetical Effects”

  1. December 13, 2019 at 2:17 pm, Mary-Jo said:

    The authors assume this type of labeling is on the ‘do no harm’ nice list, but it’s just not that simple. Many clients used to ask me for this type of information, but when I would ask them back if it really would help them make better choices, they said not really — especially for the types of packaged goodies with this info — things people reach for impulsively no matter what. In fact, people have told me when they knew ahead of time how many calories they were consuming, it just made them feel guilty, not more enlightened, so having the minutes or hours of exercise needed to burn off the food may cause more of a backlash of further negativity, like apathy or indifference.

  2. December 21, 2019 at 7:04 pm, John DiTraglia said:

    The fallacy is in the calorie equivalent of exercise. It’s like the 1 pound=3500 calories fallacy. As you get in shape the calorie cost of exercise goes down. Also size and shape vastly influence the cost of exercise.