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Food & Drink

Labels with how much exercise needed to burn calories don’t change what people eat

The labels had "little or no impact" in the study.


small business, takeaway food, people and service concept - happy female customer with coffee cup taking paper bag from man or barman at vegan cafe
(Ground Picture via Shutterstock)

By Alice Clifford via SWNS

Food and drink labels showing the amount of exercise needed to burn off calories don't change what people choose to eat, suggests a study from workplace cafeterias.

During a 12-week period in 2021, scientists put physical activity calorie-equivalent (PACE) labels and calorie information alongside all food and drink items in 10 workplace cafeterias.

Each one showed how many minutes of walking would be needed to burn off all the calories of each product.

At the end of the 12 weeks, the team found that there was no significant difference in the number of calories purchased compared to when the labels hadn’t been added.

However, there was a real mixture of results across the cafeterias. One reported a 161 kcal fall per purchase, while another saw a 69kcal increase with each transaction, and five of the cafeterias had no significant change at all.


The variety of results suggests that these labels aren’t effective and indicates that there are many different factors that influence people’s eating and drinking habits.

Since April 2022 in the UK, calorie labelling is now required on food and drink served out of the home in businesses employing 250 or more people.

The research team from the University of Cambridge’s Behaviour and Health Research Unit have done two previous studies on the subject. They found that in nine work cafeterias simple calorie labelling didn’t affect how many calories people bought either.

Eating too many calories is a key reason for obesity across the UK.

In the UK, adults eat as many as a third of their meals outside of the home, including in workplace cafeterias. These meals are often much more calorific than meals eaten at home.

More than three in five adults in the UK are overweight or obese, increasing their risk of diseases such as type two diabetes and cancer.

Portrait of businesswoman in lunch line at work cafeteria
(Altrendo Images via Shutterstock)

Dr. James Reynolds, from the school of psychology at Aston University, Birmingham, and the lead author of the research carried out by the University of Cambridge’s Behaviour and Health Research Unit, said: “Although we found that showing the amount of exercise required to burn off calories made little difference to the number of calories purchased – and, we can assume, eaten and drunk – there was considerable variability between cafeterias.

“This suggests that other factors may have influenced the effectiveness of these labels, such as the type of food sold in the cafeteria or the characteristics of those using them.”

The number of calories purchased from items that did not feature the PACE labels did not change and the labels made little difference to the revenue for the cafeterias – just a small increase of three pence per transaction.

Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge, and senior author of the study, said: “This is the largest study in a real-world setting to look at the impact of PACE labels on food and drink purchases, examining 250,000 transactions across 10 worksite cafeterias.

“The findings suggest that PACE labels, contrary to expectations, may have little or no impact on the food people buy in worksite cafeterias.”

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