Fox News is reporting that a study conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health involved observing the soft-drink buying habits of black teenagers at stores in West Baltimore. The stores were equipped with signs that displayed either calorie counts, calorie counts as a percent of recommended daily calorie intake, or the time spent jogging that would be needed to burn off those calories. While all led teenagers to purchase fewer sugary beverages, the conversion to exercise minutes was the most effective.
"In general, people are very bad at estimating the amount of calories in food they consume," said study researcher Sara Bleich, an assistant professor of health policy and management. "If we give them easy ways of examining it…I think we can be effective in reducing calories in purchases."
The study found that about 93 drinks a day were purchased in each store, on average, and this number declined slightly when the signs went up. Soda sales, which made up almost half of all purchases, dipped slightly, as did those of iced tea and sports drinks. However, sales of non-sugary beverages increased, especially sales of water, which went from 5 to 10 drinks sold daily, on average.
While all three types of signs seemed to reduce the number of sugary drinks that were bought, only the signs displaying exercise times had results strong enough to mean researchers knew the decrease in purchases could not be due to simple chance.
The amount of tmie needed to burn off each item was calculated on a 110-pound teenager, and involved jogging only because many people don't like to do it, Bleich told Fox. The amount of time it takes to burn off the calories depends on the person's weight. For instance, a 110 pound person would need to jog for 50 minutes to burn off a 20-ounce bottle of soda whereas a 150 pound person would need to jog for only 40 minutes.
Even though labeling food items in this way could result in lost sales, which would make manufacturers hesitant to do so, Bleich said the study offered some reassurance because students definitely made healthier choices, buying less soda and more water, when the signs went up.
If continued studies bring about similar results, the research could have a wider impact.
"It was a very interesting study, and I think most Americans would be floored to learn it takes 50 minutes to burn off one 20-ounce bottle of soda, basically a nutritionally worthless beverage," said Julie Greenstein, deputy director of health promotion policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"I think there'd have to be some further studies on that to see if there would be an impact. If it does have an impact, the federal government should consider this on a broader scale," she said.
While the current study was in black teenagers, who tend to have higher obesity rates and lower rates of health information, Bleich believes this means of conveying calorie information to consumers may work even better in other demographics.
"My sense would be if you did this sort of study in a group of people for whom nutrition or fitness might be more important, you might have a bigger effect," she said. "If you're more interested in changing your behavior, you're more likely to pay attention to this sort of information."
The study appears in the Dec. 15 edition of the American Journal of Public Health.
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