Food labelling should say how much exercise it would take to burn off calories, behavioural scientists have said.
Researchers found that labels with information such as “calories in this cake requires 90 minutes of walking to burn off” were far more likely to be understood, compared with a traffic light system.
The study by Loughborough University, presented at the International Congress on Obesity in Melbourne, surveyed more than 2,600 adults.
Overall, 41 per cent found a system that measured calories in terms of the exercise it would take to burn it off easier to understand, compared with 27 per cent who preferred traffic light systems.
In total, 44 per cent said it was more likely to help them to avoid high calorie foods, compared with 28 per cent who thought traffic lights would be more effective.
Participants also said packaging warning them just how long it would take to walk off fatty and sugary foods was more likely to catch their attention.
Examples included a can of fizzy drink, labelled as containing 150 calories, which would take 30 minutes walking or 15 minutes running to burn off. Meanwhile, a chocolate wafer biscuit with 209 calories would “cost” 21 minutes of running - or twice as long for those taking a stroll.
'Pace' labels more popular with younger age groups
The study led by Amanda Daley, professor of behavioural medicine at Loughborough University, found that such labels - known as “physical activity calorie equivalent (Pace) labelling” was most popular among younger age groups, as well as those who were more active.
Researchers said the study showed that consumers felt better able to make decisions when armed with such information.
Prof Daley said: “Nutritional labels support people to make food choices and traffic light labelling is the UK standard.
“However, many people do not understand the meaning of kilocalories (kcals or calories) or grams of fat displayed on food labels, and often underestimate the number of calories when labelling is not provided.”
The majority of those in favour of “Pace” labels wanted to see them used on treat foods, such as chocolate and cakes, rather than on everyday food items like bread, pasta, fruit and vegetables.
They also wanted to see such labels used in fast food outlets, supermarkets, on takeaway menus and on vending machines - all locations that typically sell high-energy, dense food and drinks.
The authors concluded: “Our findings highlight that Pace labelling is a potentially important policy-based approach to strengthen current approaches to food labelling.
“The next steps are to test whether Pace labelling reduces the purchases of high-calorie foods and drinks in different food settings such as restaurants, vending machines, coffee shops and pubs.”
It comes as ministers are reviewing the Government’s anti-obesity strategy.
Proposals to ban “buy one, get one free” multi-buy deals on fatty and sugary foods in shops, and to restrict junk food advertisements before the 9pm watershed, had already been shelved by Boris Johnson.
Even before becoming prime minister, Liz Truss said she would not want to see any further sugar taxes.
The review could mean that existing measures, such as calories on menus and sugar taxes on fizzy drinks, could be scrapped.
More than 150 medics, academics and patients groups have written to Dr Thérèse Coffey, the Health Secretary, urging her to publish a health disparities White Paper by the end of this year.
Earlier this year Sajid Javid, her predecessor, promised such a paper as part of efforts to “level up” the country and support those in deprived areas.
Medics who are members of the Inequalities in Health Alliance raised their concerns after the White Paper was not mentioned in the Government’s “Plan for Patients” published earlier this month.