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Men's health

Would activity icon labels alter your food choices?

Crisps-660x430Obesity is a global problem we need fresh ideas to help to solve.

Would you alter your food choices if an activity icon appeared on the front of food labels?

Recently 53% of British people gave the “thumbs up” to the idea in a survey by the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) in the UK. Subjects intimated that they might reconsider their food choices if symbols, showing how far people would have to run or walk in order to use the calories in foods they were about to consume, were to be placed on the front of food labels.1

What might exercise icons look like?

The RSPH, an independent multi-disciplinary charity involved in health promotion, has developed this activity icon and food resource. See Figure 1.

Figure 1 An example of how activity icons may be represented on the front of food and drink labels.


The Pro’s:

The RSPH subjects in the survey who liked the activity icon scheme felt it might help them to make better food choices, eat smaller portions and to become more physically active.

Shirley Cramer, CEO of RSPH believes linking physical activity with food may aid in reducing obesity rates in the UK.2

“The objective is to prompt people to be more aware of the energy they consume and how these calories relate to activity in their everyday lives and to encourage them to be more active”she said.

The Con’s:

While this approach does make sense the scheme is not without its critics. (The authors response is in italics in this section)

Exercise may become a punishment

There is concern that some people might start attaching feelings of punishment to exercise and guilt regarding food which might have negative effects on others in society with higher energy needs, such as underweight people, the frail elderly or those suffering from eating disorders.

Exercise is not only associated with weight control. It also boosts self esteem, mood and the quality of sleep and helps reduce depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. So it is important that exercise is to be encouraged not curtailed by the activity icon scheme.

“You can’t outrun a bad diet”

Activity icons may promote “calorie centric” thinking that you can cancel out eating “junk food” such as soft drinks or crisps by simply exercising.

Young athletes or those in very active occupations e.g. labourers, builders, farmers, might be tempted to think like this. That if they are growing and/or exercising it doesn’t matter what they eat because they will burn it all up.

Sadly this approach fails to recognise the importance of food quality the extra needs for protein and calcium to build muscle and bone and aid recovery and body repair following exercise. Along with the fact that even lean people can suffer from high cholesterol and blood sugar levels following a diet of unhealthy food choices.

“A calorie is a calorie thinking”

Contrary to popular belief not all calories are the same. Clearly 300 calories of vegetables is not metabolised in the same way as 300 calories of fried chips because many of the calories in the vegetables are unavailable for absorption due to their high dietary fibre and water content. Where as fat calories are absorbed more slowly allowing for greater and more complete energy absorption.How processed a food is also alters calorie availability.

Consumer understanding is limited

All food labelling in current use is challenged by the level of education and nutritional sophistication of the consumer 3

Attaching the activity icons to discretionary food items (i.e. high energy, highly processed snack items) rather than staple food groups needed for good health each day may help to ally many of the concerns about activity icons and who should use them.

Factors affecting food choice

Food packaging is just one of the many things influencing what we eat.

Personal drivers

According to the European Food Information Council (EUFIC) there are 7 main drivers of food choice by individuals also worth noting. 4

  • Biological: eg hunger, appetite and taste
  • Economic: e.g. cost, income and availability
  • Physical: e.g. access to food, education, cooking skills
  • Social: e.g. culture, family, peers and meal patterns
  • Psychological: e.g. mood, stress, guilt
  • Attitude: e.g. beliefs and knowledge of food

These factors can vary with the stage of our life and the power of one factor will vary from one group to another. So any single intervention to modify food choice and behaviour will not suit everyone which is why public health initatives need to target the needs of different population groups.

For instance it has been estimated that people make buying decisions within an average 6 second space of time.2 So for some groups of people, particularly people of different nationality, new immigrants or those unfamiliar with health and food issues, information conveyed in food symbols (such as activity icons) may be eaiser to understand than trying to make sense of numerical or nutritional information.

Environmental drivers

There are many tools used by manufacturers, supermarkets, garages, stadiums etc to encourage the purchasing of food. Free give aways, samples, discounts, shelving at eye level, bulk buys, promotions, vouchers, celebrity endorsements, advertising are just some of the distractions shoppers need to be aware of when making food choices.5

Finding a new tool to aid consumers search for healthier foods through this maze of marketing distractions has to be worth trialling.

Colloborration is essential

Individuals make their own food choices. However the environment in which they live, the supply of food within our country and regulations regarding it’s safety nationally and internationally is decided by government agencies.

In exceptional circumstances such as civil emergency and war government agencies and people can work together for the good of all.

With 66% of the New Zealand adult population and 33% of our children now overweight or obese6 it is time for the collaboration of policy makers; food, NGO’s and corporate groups to develop a multi-facted approach to this rapidly growing health problem.

Consumers demand more information these days and need companies to reformulate products to aid health and provide transparency regarding manufacture, food origin and supply.

People also travel more these days so bringing about food labelling initiatives, that are standardised and can be applied globally, is something that also needs to be considered.

Amongst this food chain network needs to be a global imperative to also reduce food waste.

Do front of pack labels work?

The Heart foundation tick scheme has been placing bright red ticks on the front of food packages in New Zealand for the past 20 years.

In a recent study by Otago university researchers looked at 45 newly licensed ticked products between 2011-2013. They categorised foods into 5 groups: margarine type spreads, frozen desserts, yoghurt, ready meals and processed poultry and compared them with similar non- tick food items.

The group calculated these ticked products saw the removal of 4 million megajoules of energy, 171 tonnes of saturated and trans fat and 4 tonnes of sodium over the study period.8

The researchers also found that the nutritional impact of the ‘tick’ at a population level was influenced more by product sales volume than nutritional content changes. For example ticks on margarine spreads had only 26% less saturated fat than non-tick margarines but accounted for a 63% reduction in saturated fat intake of the study group overall.

The new 5 Healthy star rating program is also showing promise, seeing voluntary food reformulations by manufacturers. This program is now in it’s second year and it is hoped that by year 5 the program will include most of the processed foods in NZ. Last year Nutrigrain cereal received a low 2 star rating. So manufacturer Kelloggs added dietary fibre, reduced the salt and sugar and this year the product was re-ranked with a healthier 4 stars rating9

Companies such as Heinz Wattie’s have also responed to nutrition and health research by re-labelling and reducing the salt and sugar content of many of their products such as canned fruits and vegetables and sauces proving that manufactures are trying to act responsibly.

Rather in the same way as plain wrapping and pictures of rotting teeth and gums have helped to detour smoking in Australia10,11 a trial placing activity icons on the front of discretionary, high energy, snack food items may help to curb poor food choices too.  It’s worth a try don’t you think?

If you would like to check that your exercise level is matching your weight and health goals or any other issues determining your food choices then contact us today.


For more information read some of Lea’s other article on similar topics:

How much food do you waste each day?
8 healthy tips when making “real food” choices
Childhood obesity- environmental factors

Also hot link items:
Shopping news
Kids choice guidelines for young diners


  1. Food should be labeled with the exercise needed to expend its calories BMJ 2016; 353 doi: (Published 06 April 2016)
  2. Chu W. Expert calls for activity icon that could reduce obesity rates. 8 April 2016.Food 
  3. Cowburn G, Stockley L. Consumer understanding and use of nutrition labelling a systematic review. Public Health Nutr 2005 Feb 8 (1) 21-8
  4. The determinants of food choice EUFIC Review 04/2005
  5. Lubin G. 15 ways supermarkets trick you into spending money. Business Insider July 27, 2011
  6. MOH obesity statistics 2014/5
  7. Partnership crucial to tackle global nutritional challenges. Food Industry Asia (FIA) 25 Nov 2014
  8. Thomson RK, McLean RM, Ning SZ, Mainvil LA. Tick front of pack label has a positive nutrition impact on foods sold in NZ . Public Health Nut Cambridge 30 June 2016.
  9. The Healthy star rating
  10. Graphic images of cigarette packets will be effective. Massey University NZ
  11. Chipty T. Study of the impact of the Tobacco plain packaging measures on smoking prevalance in Australia. Jan 24 2016.–-Appendix-A.pdf

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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