What if you knew how long those chips take to burn off?

NEW YORK • Would you put down that bag of chips if the package it comes in tells you it has an eye-popping number of calories?

But what if the label said it would take 30 minutes of running to burn off those calories?

Health experts for years have pushed for clearer food labelling to empower people to make better choices.

In the United States, a recent regulation requires calorie counts on packages to be displayed bigger.

Red, yellow and green labels signal the healthfulness of some foods in Britain.

But with obesity rates persistently high or rising in many countries, including Singapore, researchers are looking at whether more drastic approaches could help.

One attention-grabbing idea being explored concerns labelling foods with “exercise calories”- or the amount of physical activity needed to burn them off.

For example, a chocolate bar might state it has 230 calories, alongside icons indicating that it amounts to 42 minutes of walking or 22 minutes of running to burn off the calories.

With calorie counts, experts worry that the information does not mean much if people do not know how much they should be eating anyway.

And with the “traffic light” system, people might not understand why a food is red.

Is it the fat, the sugar or something else?

It is no surprise then, that some people do not pay attention to current labels, but exercise calories might be more useful, said Ms Amanda Daley.

She is a professor of behavioural medicine at Loughborough University in Britain.

“They may still ignore it, but let’s give it a go. Let’s at least give them a chance to be able to easily understand,” she added.

However, not everyone finds the idea compelling.

Regardless of whether it gets people to curb their consumption, it could reinforce negative attitudes about exercise, said Mr Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert at the University of Ottawa in Canada.

“The idea that exercise is a punishment for eating does not strike me as a good way to promote exercise or healthy attitudes around food,” he added.

Instead of trying to find a label that can finally persuade people to stop eating unhealthy foods, Mr Freedhoff said it would be better to promote environments where it is easier to make good nutritional choices.

For now, it is unknown how exercise-time labelling would affect choices in the real world.

A British Journal of Medicine journal has published an analysis, co-authored by Ms Daley, that reviewed the limited research so far.

The review suggested it may prompt consumers to go for lower-calorie products than no labelling at all.

But the evidence was less clear when comparing exercise-calorie labelling with specific alternatives such as calorie counts alone.

So, does that mean the concept could be too drastic to become reality?

But Mr Brian Elbel, a New York University public health expert who studies calorie counts on menus, said other measures, like soda taxes, were also once considered far-fetched.

“Just because it is not going to happen tomorrow does not mean it is not an important thing to look at,” he said.

In Singapore, there have been proposals to introduce an unhealthy label for high-sugar drinks and ban advertisements linked to such products. The authorities are set to announce an action plan next year.

A survey last year found that more than half the 12 teaspoons of sugar people consume daily here come from sweet drinks.


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