The fight against the growing obesity epidemic is a constant struggle of responsibility: a responsibility shared between both food producers and consumers, with information being the key weapon.
A surplus of calories to any diet leads to fat. If you don’t burn those calories they’ll end up stored as fat in your belly or anywhere else your body fancies. There’s science behind that equation – it’s what drives the health and fitness industry daily. Now, is food labelling about to get in on the act too?
Read label carefully before use
Nutritional information has been part of food labelling for over twenty years – easy-to-understand breakdowns of proteins, fats and carbohydrates percentages emblazoned across food packaging for the consumer to make informed choices on how they proportion their macronutrient intake. However, regardless of the manufacturer’s increasing devotion to transparency about their product, information can only ever be effective if it’s understood in context.
Recommended amounts and daily average calorie intakes will only mean something to the consumer if they’re aware of what eating that certain product will mean to their lifestyle. The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) aren’t certain that’s holding true and have called for even more illuminating labelling on food packaging to highlight exactly what effects the calorific content will have on the consumer.
Eat this and run
Calling for greater clarification, the British health and wellbeing charity has suggested that food labelling should make customers aware of the activity equivalent of a product’s calorie count. In essence: the exercise required to burn the same amount of calories. If the customer knows that a chocolate bar equates to a pulse-racing, street-pounding thirty minute run, that puts the contextual knowledge right in the hands (and belly) of the consumer and hopefully alerts them to how best to manage their daily diet.
At least that’s the idea.
Of course, different people of different sizes and metabolisms have, you guessed it, different activity levels required to burn off calories. But it’s certainly food for thought in the ongoing battle against global obesity levels. Worldwide obesity and associated diseases such as diabetes are on the increase – a little knowledge and a little bit of exercise could go a long way in halting the trend. The RSPH’s polling found that 56% of customers use food packaging information as part of their decision to buy, which shows that there is a clear grounding for such a move.
A local fix to a global problem
Although at present a proposal in a western country only, data suggests similar measures are required – and could succeed – globally. Even countries such as Singapore, traditionally home to leaner figures, have registered an increase in weight gain and Type 2 diabetes, and the cost of fighting it is tabled to reach $2.5 billion per year by 2050.
Meanwhile in a review of more than 50 studies done in North America, Health Canada found that providing calorie information on menus resulted in a negligible decrease of 13 calories (kcal) consumed per person. Yet this figure jumped to 81 kcal per person when information was added to help consumers interpret the numbers they were seeing.
Yes, personal accountability needs to be tackled. But lifestyle changes and diet choices can only be made effectively when the consumer feels appropriately informed on nutritional and calorific content and what its impacts might be. Knowledge, as they say, is power.
Greater transparency on food labelling is a concerted shift in focus from food manufacturers’ responsibility in providing the information, to the customer as to how they choose to use it. Given packaging space and clarity issues, a symbol system would be most likely to be adopted, with simplicity and directness given precedence over yet more figures and confusing information. The labelling market must await with interest as to where we go next.
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