Should Supermarket Receipts Contain Calorie Information?

updated May 30, 2019
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Imagine a world where you’re grabbing ingredients from your grocery store and the receipt outs your habits by printing the nutritional profile of your entire shopping cart. Would you feel proud? Embarrassed? Maybe shocked? Well, those feelings could soon become a reality. A new proposal by academics at Birmingham City University says that shoppers should get details they might not want to confront in their receipts: calories, sugars, fats, and salts. Aside from potentially food-shaming consumers, it’s not exactly guaranteed to be as reflective of food habits as one may think.

The proposed concept calls for a “traffic light system” that tallies nutritional totals and highlights the numbers at the bottom of the receipt.

“Current evidence suggests that whilst consumers generally find the traffic light nutrition labelling useful, there are limitations, particularly when considering a person’s overall nutritional intake,” Matthew Cole, a senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Nutrition at Birmingham City University, says in a statement. “A new receipt-based system could bridge this gap, and provide an additional tool to help aid consumers in their food purchases, providing an overall summary of their entire food purchases.”

The concept is well-meaning, as it aims to get people to shop more healthfully by listing the calories of a shopping trip within the receipt. Ed Morrow, campaigns manager at the Royal Society for Public Health, told The Guardian that he thinks the idea makes a lot of sense.

“Instinctively, it seems like a good idea,” Morrow says. “If health information is just on the product, it’s easy to ignore, but if you get another reminder at the till you might start to compare receipts, see what you’ve scored each time, then try to do better. Doing things that gamify the experience of shopping can be a good motivator in terms of changing behavior.”

But its effectiveness is questionable. First and foremost, the jury is still out on whether labels posting calorie counts even work.

Over the past few years, legislation has called for putting such values on restaurant menus in the United States. New York City was the first in America to roll out these regulations. Since then, a wealth of research has found such information doesn’t encourage the consumer to change their diet.

Despite the fact that 92 percent of restaurant meals have too many calories, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics by Tufts University researchers, a team of Johns Hopkins University researchers found that enforcing calories on menus encouraged restaurants to offer healthier fare.

But when it comes to consumer decisions, it’s a different story. One study found that consumers spend a mere six seconds looking at a product before buying it. A New York University study found consumer habits in New York (where there are calories listed) versus New Jersey (where there are no calories listed) to be mildly different.

Aside from the effectiveness of receipt labels, there’s a question on how accurate or indicative the totals will be. A tally on a given receipt may be misleading since different ingredients are used for various meals and dishes. What’s more, shoppers may have healthy ingredients at home or in their garden, that would be unaccountable in a receipt tally. Or they may shop around for various goods at various markets.

The concept could be effective on pre-packaged meals or snacks (think: sugary cereals, junk food, and high-sodium meals). Even then, consumers could talk themselves into high-calorie treats by falsely rationalizing portion controlling — or just not care about looking at the numbers.

Thus far, it’s only a suggested proposal by academics and there’s no legislation to make it a reality. Should it become a thing, and prove to have a quantifiable impact, it’s not a far-fetched idea that the same could be integrated in receipts stateside.