What If We Put Physical Activity on the Food Label?

Written by Alexandra Black MPH, RD, LDN, Health Promotion Manager, IHRSA

Health literacy is defined as the ability to obtain, process, and understand basic health information, and October is National Health Literacy Month, dedicated to promoting a better understanding of health information. Health literacy is often discussed in terms of medical diagnoses and clinical treatments, but I think it has relevance in other areas, with no better example than the great American food label (probably why the FDA is working on an update).

If I discussed all that was wrong with the food label, I wouldn’t have any time to make my point, so I’ll just say that it is confusing to many Americans for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it’s actually very difficult for a lot of people to quantify calorie information. Alas, 200 calories looks so innocent on that label until you realize you just wasted 10% of your calorie budget on 12 tortilla chips.

But it looks like there may be some hope. This week a study published in the American Journal of Public Health used placement of signs in West Baltimore corner stores with messaging like “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?” or “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about five miles of walking?” to assess the impact of using exercise data on customer behavior. The signs worked, resulting in fewer purchases of soda or juice and more purchases of smaller portion sizes – meaning more people chose the 12 ounce can over the 20 ounce bottle.  These findings corroborated other research (like here and here) demonstrating a similar effect.

So what would happen if all food labels included a line on exercise? Well, I’d like to think this bonus information would translate to more people understanding their food label. I’d like to think that would lead to a decline in the portion and amount of sugar sweetened beverage, fast food, sweets, and junk food Americans ate. Or that more people would visit their gyms more often, as they make the informed choice to enjoy a cupcake at lunch and pay for it with Zumba class or an hour on the treadmill later that night. Or to earn their Sunday pancakes at a cycling class or on the weight circuit.

Maybe I’m just dreaming, but I think there’s real merit to this idea. At the very least, arming the good people of America with more health information in an easy to digest format doesn’t hurt, right? Actually, I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate Health Literacy Month.