The fight against the growing obesity epidemic is a constant struggle of responsibility – a responsibility shared between both food producers and consumers, with information as the key weapon.
A surplus of calories in any diet leads to fat. If you don’t burn those calories, they’ll be stored as fat in your belly or anywhere else your body chooses. The science behind this equation is what drives the health and fitness industry daily. Is food labeling about to get in on the act too?
Read label carefully before use
Nutritional information has been part of food labeling for over twenty years – in easy-to-understand breakdowns of protein, fat and carbohydrate percentages emblazoned on food packaging, so the consumer can 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 never be effective unless it’s understood in context.
Recommended amounts and daily average calorie intakes will only have meaning for consumers if they’re aware of what eating that certain product will mean for their lifestyle. The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) is not convinced that’s holding true, and has called for even more illuminating labeling on food packaging to highlight exactly what effects 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 labeling should make customers aware of the activity equivalent of a product’s calorie count. In essence, this is 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 30-minute run, that puts the contextual knowledge squarely in the hands (and stomach) of the consumer, alerting them (it is hoped) to how best to manage their daily diet.
At least that’s the idea.
The catch? You guessed it – different people of different sizes and metabolisms required different activity levels to burn 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 – and a little knowledge and exercise could go a long way in halting the trend. The RSPH’s poll found that 56% of customers use food packaging information as part of their decision to buy, which shows that there is a clear basis for such a move.
A local fix to a global problem
Although currently only a proposal in a western country, 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 expected 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.
It’s true that the uncomfortable matter of personal accountability needs to be tackled. But lifestyle changes and diet choices are only effective when the consumer feels appropriately informed about nutritional and calorific content and what the impacts might be. Knowledge, as they say, is power.
Greater transparency in food labeling is a concerted shift in focus – from food manufacturers’ responsibility in providing the information, to customer choice in how they use a product. Given packaging space and clarity issues, a symbol system would be most likely be adopted, with simplicity and directness given precedence over even more figures and confusing information. The labeling market will watch with interest as to where we go next.
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