Re-Thinking Food Labels

Calories, as defined on the back of food packaging labels as a number, presents a challenge of equivalence for dieters or those who are calorie counting. I know a bag of chips might have 300 calories if I eat the whole bag, but I don’t really have a way to understand what that means in terms of my health or total daily caloric intake.

Should I eat that bag of chips? Will it ruin my diet? What would it take to burn off that bag of chips via exercise? These are not easy questions to answer when there’s no real context for caloric numbers — save for higher numbers are probably worse for you.

1363Well, the University of North Carolina (U.N.C.) at Chapel Hill School of Medicine recently ran a study to see if recontextualizing food labels, not based on a number but, based on how far a person would have to walk to break even, would result in people making better eating decisions.

People who viewed the menu without nutritional information ordered a meal totaling 1,020 calories, on average, significantly more than the average 826 calories ordered by those who viewed menus that included information about walking-distance. Study participants ordered meals adding up to averages of 927 calories and 916 calories from menus with only calorie information or calorie information plus minutes walking, respectively, although the differences between these two totals were not statistically significant. The findings appear in the March issue of the journal Appetite. “The next stage is to see how this might work in a real-world setting,” says Sunaina Dowray, a medical student at the U.N.C. School of Medicine and lead author of the study. She says that the team might try to work with the school’s cafeteria about the possibility of testing the concept their labels there.

Although a difference of 200 or even 100 calories might not seem large, a 2011 study from researchers that included scientists at the National Institutes of Health calculated that eating just 10 fewer calories a day would make a person shed a pound of weight over three years.

Never underestimate the power of presenting information and data into a context people can concretely understand the impact of.

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