Workplace cafeteria study finds no evidence that physical activity calorie-equivalent labeling changes food purchasing

To explore whether PACE levels can make a difference in real world settings, researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Behaviour and Health Research Unit carried out an experiment across 10 workplace cafeterias in England over a 12 week period in 2021. Their results are published today in PLOS Medicine.

The team collected baseline sales data for a period of business-as-usual for the cafeterias ahead of the experiment. During this period, most labels and menus featured only the product name and price, though some products included standardised front-of-pack nutrition labels on branded and in-house products.  During the intervention period the ten cafeterias included calorie information and PACE labels alongside food and drinks items and on items including hot meals, sandwiches, cold drinks and desserts. These labels displayed the minutes of walking that would be needed to burn off the calories in the product. 

The team found no evidence that including PACE labels resulted in an overall change in energy purchased from labelled items. However, there was a great deal of variability, with one cafeteria reporting a fall per transaction of 161kcal and another an increase of 69kcal, while five of the cafeterias reported no significant change.

First author Dr James Reynolds from the School of Psychology, Aston University, who carried out the research while at Cambridge, 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 3p per transaction.

Senior author Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge, 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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3 responses to “Workplace cafeteria study finds no evidence that physical activity calorie-equivalent labeling changes food purchasing

  1. Having the calories of foods does change whether or not I purchase something, but only on very specific occasions. For instance, if I’m looking at getting chicken/steak nachos at Qdoba for lunch, I don’t care what the calorie clicker says. If, however, I’m looking at a snack or additional meal I normally wouldn’t eat, having the calories posted will dissuade me from making a purchase… or even choosing something with less of an impact to my abdomen.

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  2. Rock

    First off, hope all is going well so far Tony! Anyway, this study is not surprising as (most) people are just not label readers to begin with. Even the standard nutrition label is barely scanned over if at all. Then they can’t seem to remember the calorie count, or sodium, saturated fat , or what have you, is for a serving size, NOT the whole container. You might as well at least double the numbers on the label per serving because you usually get at least two servings per package, sometimes more! Once, years ago, I purchased a container of deli macaroni salad and didn’t think the 430 mgs of sodium was too bad until I realized that was for a single serving and the package contained FOUR servings! People need to read and convert these labels into serving size . My nutritionist said that is probably the biggest error people make when reading labels, if they bother to read them at all.

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    • Thanks for sharing. One of the first subjects I wrote about back when this was a only weight loss blog was – portion size and serving size. That is a most formidable tool.

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