London, UK – Go into most chain restaurants in the United States and right alongside the prices you’ll see another number—the calorie count. Back around 2008-2009 some cities and states passed legislation requiring them to do so, and then a few years later, some big chains such as McDonalds, Starbucks, and Chick-fil-A started to voluntarily display calorie and nutrition information in all of their restaurants. By the end of this year (December 2016) all US chains of 20 or more locations will have to display calorie counts (a provision of the Affordable Care Act that Obama signed into law back in 2010).

So… armed with all of this information, consumers have making much healthier choices and have really changed the way they eat, right? Not necessarily so say several studies (including recent ones conducted by NYU’s Langone Medical Center and Carnegie Mellon University) which have concluded that calorie labels, on their own, have not reduced the overall number of calories that consumers of fast food order and eat. 

The Royal Society for Public Health, an HCP organization in the United Kingdom, is advocating a fresh approach to the problem—”activity equivalent” labels. This approach on signage and food labels would tell consumers how many minutes they would have to perform some sort of exercise (like walking or jogging) to burn the calories in specific food items. The goal is to make a vague concept like a calorie more meaningful to consumers and to motivate them to be more active. While no chain or municipality has yet adopted these activity labels, some limited studies have suggested that there is potential to make an impact with the approach, especially in places where easier to understand health information is critical.

Why this matters:

Caloric content is just another example of valuable health information and data that may not getting through to some of the people who need it most, specifically lower socioeconomic groups who often lack basic health literacy and who struggle with food-related health issues like obesity and diabetes. Uncovering new methods and frameworks to translate and present nutritional information in an actionable way is critical, and the learnings have the potential to extend beyond food and drink to impact things like drug and disease information for patients and caregivers.

Perspective from Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, can be found here. And another interesting nutritional tool to explore is check out is MenuStat , a database that allows you to search over 150,000 restaurant food items.

About the Author:

Jeffrey Giermek