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Food labeling: Is that soda worth a 5-mile walk?

To tackle the obesity epidemic, regulators want to make food labels more explicit.associated press

WHILE FOOD labeling should be a powerful tool against the obesity epidemic, current requirements too often leave consumers scratching their heads about what they are about to eat. With a little more information, explained in simple terms, many people would likely make healthier choices.

The nutrition facts label found on most food products is often misread — or flat-out ignored — because most people don’t know how to interpret the information. The label was last updated 20 years ago, and it’s overdue for a makeover. In February, the Food and Drug Administration proposed to overhaul it to make it easier to read and to tailor it better to how much food Americans typically eat. The changes include updating serving sizes to reflect a more realistic portion, refreshing the label design so that the calorie count appears in significantly larger and bolder type, and listing the amount of added sugars in the label. (Unlike natural sugars, added sugars provide empty calories with no nutritional value.)


But the FDA should go further. Not long ago, a group of researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore set out to prove that presenting calorie facts in a more functional context might make a difference. The researchers tracked sugary drinks purchased by black teenagers in certain stores in low-income neighborhoods. They posted signs stating that a 110-pound teen would have to walk about five miles to burn off the 250 calories found in a 20-ounce soda. “People don’t really understand what it means to say a typical soda has 250 calories,” one of the authors of the study told National Public Radio. The research found that, by presenting the calories in the context of the amount of exercise needed to burn them off, teenagers shopping at selected convenience stores chose to buy smaller bottles or healthier drinks. The probability of buying a sugared drink larger than 16 ounces decreased; purchases of bottled water grew.

This research suggests that presenting calorie information in its “exercise equivalent” is a powerful way to influence Americans’ behavior toward healthier food choices. As the FDA rethinks the nutrition label, it should consider making sure consumers are informed about how much physical activity equates with a given amount of calories. Such a change would lead more Americans to think twice about their diets.