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Surprising Science

What If Food Labels Spelled Out Calories in Practical Terms?

Some health advocates believe the public would eat healthier if they were informed just how much they'd have to exercise to work off a bowl of sugary cereal or a liter of cola.

James Hamblin over at The Atlantic has an interesting piece up right now about nutrition labels, which is not a sentence I thought I’d ever write. In the article, Hamblin profiles a professor at Johns Hopkins whose dream is for all nutrition labels to replace numerical calorie counts with descriptions of how much exercise would be needed to work off that bowl of cheese dip or liter of cola.


Sara Bleich, the aforementioned professor, recently published a study in which she installed “Did you know?” signs in various corner stores that informed customers just how much exercise, in minutes and miles, would be needed to work off a soda. Hamblin explains:

“The signs were a proxy for an actual food label, but they made the point. They effectively led to fewer juice and soda purchases, and to purchases of smaller sizes (12-ounce cans instead of 20-ounce bottles). Bleich also saw learned behavior; even after the signs came down, the local patrons continued to buy less soda and juice.

‘The problem with calories is that they’re not very meaningful to people,’ Bleich told me. ‘The average American doesn’t know much about calories, and they’re not good at numeracy.'”

That last bit is important, if not a just a little cynical. If you want people to get healthier (as is in the best interest of any nation paying at least a portion of its citizens’ healthcare), speaking in a language regular folks understand is a necessity.

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What do you think? Should nutrition labels stay the way they are, or would you appreciate an alternate perspective?

Read more at The Atlantic

Photo credit: Stephen VanHorn / Shutterstock


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