In most countries, packaged foods carry a label containing nutritional information. This is a good thing. Using the label, a consumer can decipher what he or she will eat or drink. Putting in some effort, the label should enable the majority of people to make healthy food choices.
The positive impact of these choices should be evident when looking at society, especially considering the fact that the U.S. Nutrition Facts label is (apparently) so well-designed that its creator, Burkey Belser, received an award of design excellence by no less than Bill Clinton in 1997.
But if it’s really that great, then why are over 39% of American adults obese? Surely, just a label couldn’t prevent this on its own — but it should be able to achieve at least something, right?
A brief history of the Nutrition Label
The label used by the U.S. was mandated in 1990 through the NLEA — the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, initiated by the Food and Drug Administration. The NLEA required food companies to begin using the new food label on packaged foods beginning May 8, 1994. This means that fresh foods don’t need to carry such label, and consequently, steaks or bell peppers don’t carry them, but Cheerios, Dr. Pepper, and Twinkies do.
Interestingly, at the time of its introduction, the label was considered controversial by food companies. This isn’t really surprising, though, as many of those companies are really just in the business of making money. Sticking a label on your products showing to all of your customers essentially how unhealthy the product is might not seem like the sweetest deal.
The information on the label then was — and today still is — mostly based on the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) value of 2,000 calories. A debatable metric, to put mildly. In addition, there are RDIs for how many calories come from fat, carbohydrates, and protein — the three main macronutrients.
In 2006, a new requirement was introduced to list trans fats under saturated fats. This was the first significant change to the label since its introduction, and a prelude to the redesign to come, some ten years later.
Redesign of 2016 — Sugar Controversy
In 2014, several changes were proposed by the FDA to improve the label that ultimately led to the 2016 redesign. It turned out that the label current at that time was not easy to understand for everyone, so an improved design was proposed to better reflect serving size, total calories and the types of fat contained by the food.
In addition, added sugar was to be listed as well as the amount of vitamin D and potassium. It might not come as a surprise, but many food companies were barely cooperative (again), this time because they had to start listing how much sugar they added to their products. Some even went as far as to say that it was not evident that sugar consumption in the U.S. was troublesome.
The fight over sugar between Big Food and the FDA took quite some time, causing the deadline to creep. But, by January 1, 2020, (or 2021 for small businesses) food companies have to comply with the new rules of the 2016 redesign.
Why it’s great
The nutrition label is great when you consider that there was no requirement for a label before. Its existence makes it easier for consumers to choose what foods to buy and find out what those foods are made of, and how many calories they contain. The label is a bridge towards better food choices, and it should be applauded for that.
The uniform design makes the label easy to recognize, so people can quickly spot it and find the information that they are looking for. It also forces companies to be upfront about their products’ ingredients, and the uniform design does a pretty good job at preventing companies from selectively hiding or otherwise obscuring information.
And, above anything else, the intent of the label is fantastic. It took a lot of (political) work to get to the point where we are now, and people have fought hard for it. The label surely helps millions of people every day to try and do better for their health, and the health of their families and kids in particular.
Why it’s terrible
But it’s not all good. Firstly, a nutrition facts label should not have to be deciphered — which the current one does. If we want it to function, it must be as clear as a traffic sign. Navigating the supermarket should be compared to navigating downtown during rush hour: there’s no time to pay attention to one single thing for any longer than a second or two because by that time we’ll already be at the next intersection.
This means we have to prioritize certain parts of the information and make them visual. Ever seen a traffic sign saying “Drive 2% of 200 mph at this junction”? Or “There is a 12-feet wide sidewalk within 2 minutes of walking from here”?
Of course, you haven’t, because it wouldn’t make sense. Traffic signs say things like: Exit here. Park over there. Don’t speed. Slow down, kids playing. Stop.
Yet, that’s not how the current food labels work. The FDA’s own explanation of how to use it is just under 3,000 words. The labels contain a maze of numbers and percentages, indicating how much of some likely to be unfamiliar nutrient is in an arbitrarily sized serving.
How much is a serving?
About those servings. If the entire label revolves around serving size, then it is paramount to get those serving sizes right. The FDA puts it like this:
The first place to start when you look at the Nutrition Facts label is the serving size and the number of servings in the package. Serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar foods; they are provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount, e.g., the number of grams.
The size of the serving on the food package influences the number of calories and all the nutrient amounts listed on the top part of the label. Pay attention to the serving size, especially how many servings there are in the food package. Then ask yourself, “How many servings am I consuming”? (e.g., 1/2 serving, 1 serving, or more) In the sample label, one serving of macaroni and cheese equals one cup. If you ate the whole package, you would eat two cups. That doubles the calories and other nutrient numbers, including the %Daily Values as shown in the sample label.
Which, of course, is total nonsense. Imagine a single dad, hauling two kindergarteners through the supermarket aisles, asking himself “how many servings am I consuming?”. This doesn’t happen in real life. What happens is that a person glances over the calories per serving and goes “Ah, that seems kinda high, I guess?” and then buys it anyway. “I’ll probably just have half a serving, and I should be fine” the reasoning might go.
Besides, there is no way to visually differentiate between low, medium, or high calories. It’s just a number, sitting there, between other numbers. How is someone whose job is not being a dietician supposed to know how many calories is a lot? And how are calories a useful metric if satiety is never taken into account?
To make matters worse, many food companies cheat the serving sizes. Often, one wrapped candy bar or a can of energy drink are actually labeled as two servings. How are you going to drink half a can of Monster? Where are you going to put that other half of a Kit-Kat? That’s right. You’re putting it down your face — no matter how many servings the tin says are in the container.
So, even though it is important to somehow indicate how much of a certain food would typically go into a serving, it’s risky, mildly put, to base the entire label on those serving sizes, in combination with debatable daily recommended values.
The Calorie Myth
On to the next problem. A serving of Monster contains 110 calories. That’s about 60 calories less than one serving of peanut butter made of 100% peanuts with no additives whatsoever. The peanut butter must be worse for your health, or at least make you gain more weight, right? Wrong. Because, to your body, a calorie means nothing.
I couldn’t explain it better than the author of The Calorie Myth did, which I highly recommend you to read. To summarize; the calorie is a unit of energy measurement invented in the 1800s. When you measure electricity, you talk about watts. When you measure heat (not temperature), you talk about calories.
A calorie is the amount of energy it takes to heat one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. This, as you might have concluded for yourself, has very little to do with food. Your body has no idea of calories. Your body does not “burn” calories — the notion of “burning” came from the 1800s experiments, where stuff (such as peanuts, but also wood, and alcohol) was literally burned in a submerged container to see how much the surrounding water’s temperature rose.
Two identical twins on different diets, but consuming the exact same amount of calories, are likely to be miles apart when it comes to their weight and general health.
Current lifestyle is in need of restriction, not addition.
Calories are a unit of measurement invented in 1819 — roughly thirty years before doctors realized they should probably wash their hands after handling corpses. We’ve learned quite a bit about the human body since then.
If not calories, then what?
Many people will argue that, no matter how you frame a certain diet, the following holds true: if you burn more energy than you consume, you will lose weight (and as a result become healthy).
First and foremost, bodyweight obviously impacts health, but weight alone is not a one-size-fits-all gauge for overall health. This is why BMI is pretty much a useless metric on its own.
Secondly, there actually is some sort of truth in “calories in versus calories out”, but only taking into account an essential nuance that the majority of people misses: what happens to the energy you take in is almost solely controlled by when you eat, and in what shape the energy enters your body — what you eat — through the rising and falling of many hormone levels in a complex, yet to be fully understood, maze of metabolic processes.
So, yes — if you use more energy than there is energy available directly from food, you will lose weight. The problem with this reasoning is that it completely forgoes that when you eat and what you eat can actually lower the amount of energy you use or increase the amount of energy from food that you store.
Therefore, the truth in “calories in versus calories out” reasoning is misleading. Because in reality, your body and how you use energy is a complex mechanism that is mostly driven by hormones and cycles, such as circadian rhythms — not by calories.
The Sunburn Example
Two people of similar complexion and a comparable tan sit in the blistering sun for 20 minutes. One of them gets a terrible sunburn while the other one hardly even tans. This wouldn’t surprise most people. We all know that some people get sunburned more easily than others.
Yet, when it comes to diet, we are still trying to fit everyone into the same box. For decades, we’ve been searching for a one-size-fits-all diet, completely foregoing the obvious fact that how one responds to certain foods is at least as personal as how someone responds to sunlight exposure.
Human metabolism is, if anything, more complex than the mechanics of how our skin works. Trying to find one diet that makes us all equally healthy, is like trying to invent a sunscreen that gives everybody the exact same tan, no matter the time and intensity of exposure to the sun.
The resulting one-size-fits-all sunscreen would either give millions of people skin cancer or would have nobody get a tan ever again. Which is strikingly linear to our current dieting landscape.
Remember the traffic sings I mentioned earlier? Now imagine a food label that gets the most important things across first: health hazards, risk contributors, things to take into consideration. Don’t speed. Park here. Stop.
A label one can glance over to get a basic idea of what they’re putting in their body. And most importantly, a label that doesn’t need deciphering.
And then imagine being able to do this in a personalized way, so that the label is different for every individual, depending on their current health, how they are feeling, and maybe even genetics.
Such a label can exist — here’s the proposed design draft:
Let’s break down all of the design choices I made during the process, and how this lead to this proposal.
Let’s also quickly address how aesthetically pleasing the label is. It isn’t. Because, well, are traffic signs pretty? That’s why.
Keep what’s good
First and foremost, we’ve kept what was good. No need to reinvent the wheel, and we want to make sure to build on the recognizably of the current label.
- Recognizable through uniformity — Helvetica stays;
- Readable and clear, stripped of anything that’s of no use — concise;
- It has a serious and official character;
- Maximum contrast (mostly black and white).
We’ve also held on to the basic shape, which is a petty basic rectangle, preferably in portrait so that it nicely translates to smartphone screens in the future.
In addition, this rectangular shape allows us to easily stretch or contract the label vertically if there’s more (or less) information to be communicated.
When it comes to its structure, this is where most changes were made. We now prioritize the negative impacts of the food at the top of the label. These are most important to get across. The reasoning goes that skipping things that are bad to your diet has a way bigger positive impact than incorporating a few more good things.
Current lifestyle is in need of positive restriction, not addition.
It’s important to stress that people read from top to bottom. Taking into consideration the fact that not everyone reads the entire label, we can safely assume that the closer to the top certain information is, the more people it will reach.
In addition, the 2019 Food Labeling Survey found that 48% of US adults would be likely to look for symbols and icons to try to make better health choices.
Package symbols and icons are already being used by consumers to make healthy food purchase decisions, but consumers would be likely to use additional information if provided…
…consumers agree that a symbol indicating whether a food is healthy would be very helpful (54%) and would make them more likely to purchase a product (45%).
The thing is, most types of food aren’t simply healthy or unhealthy. This depends on how often you consume them, how many servings you consume, and other factors like timing and pairing with other foods. So we can’t label a product as good or bad — but we can come close.
All the way at the top of the label is the category. This is important because we want people to acknowledge what they are buying. By doing so, we bypass the possibly delusive image that a brand has created for their product. When buying energy drinks, for example, a person buying Red Bull does not feel as if he is buying a sugary, caffeinated and highly chemical soft drink. Instead, he feels as if he’s buying a sports drink.
We want to pull people back into reality by accurately naming (and indirectly shaming) the sort of product they are buying: Soft drink. Candy bar. Cabbage. Fast food.
I am aware that, in reality, the categorization would be a tremendously difficult feat, and many companies would try to have their products categorized differently. This is a problem of the future and, in all honesty, it’s partially the FDA’s problem to sort out.
Right below the category is a one-line verdict. This verdict tells people whether or not the product fits into a healthy lifestyle. There are three options:
- Contributes to a healthy lifestyle;
- Can be part of a healthy lifestyle;
- Is not part of a healthy lifestyle.
That’s it. This, too, will have many companies absolutely furious, and it will be very difficult to create the exact rules and guidelines for determining in what box a product fits. However, I am convinced that every type of food does fit perfectly into one of the three boxes.
To go into box one, a product must be completely free of concerning ingredients (more on that later). It also must be unprocessed and have a high nutritional value.
Box two, which will be by the box containing by far the most products, will contain all products that do have significant nutritional value (for instance high in protein, high in certain good fats, high in vitamins or minerals), or products that are very low in risk contributors. These are all the things that you shouldn’t be eating lots of every single day, but won’t directly harm you if you eat them every now and then.
Box three is dedicated to those products we don’t need at all. Sugary energy drinks, alcoholic drinks, highly processed foods, most types of candy, industrially made pastries. Stuff like that.
Note that by ‘do not need’ I am purely talking about humans metabolically requiring them. The label is only concerned with health — not with cultural standards or the occasional treat.
Concerning ingredients & notable facts
To me, this is the most interesting area of the label. Here, we will list every single risk contributor, and label them with a warning sign. Things like processed vegetable oils, added sugars, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, alcohol, and many, many more go into the left section.
Under Notable facts, we list everything that’s not necessarily bad, but that is, well, notable. This area might just as well contain positive attributes, for example, if a type of food is unprocessed or has very high nutritional value.
Other than that, we mention things like high macronutrient contents (fat, carbohydrates, and protein), whether or not something is organically grown, pasture-raised, free-range — stuff like that.
This allows the consumer to quickly see the most important aspects of a certain product, both positive and negative. In addition, I’ve chosen to simply mention certain facts (such as high carb or high-fat contents), without judging them, as these aren’t necessarily bad things, and their impact greatly varies on an individual basis.
Another metric that will cause much debate. Diet is much like chemistry. Many chemical compounds don’t do much on their own. Yet, in combination with another substance, they might very well become explosive, highly toxic, or magically luminescent.
When it comes to diet, you can’t say that one food is bad and the other one is good, without zooming out and looking at the entire picture. What the rest of a person’s diet looks like greatly influences the (lack of) quality of a certain food within that bigger picture.
So we generally can’t just rate foods as “good” or “bad” for you. However, we can try to steer a person into subtly changing their entire food landscape.
That’s what this section is for. It gives the consumer a sense of how often a certain food can be safely enjoyed. Some foods are treats. You can have a treat maybe once a day, but preferably only every other day or so.
Other foods are staples. They are consumed daily, or even more than once a day. For these, we want people to resort to foods that are actually safe to eat a lot of. And that’s exactly what they can see by looking at the safety score.
To further help people make choices, we give them some guidance on how often they can safely enjoy a certain food:
- 0–25: better to avoid;
- 26–50: up to one serving per week;
- 41–70: up to three servings per week;
- 81–90: up to two servings per day;
- 91–100: up to three servings per day.
Currently, the serving sizes on nutrition labels are a joke. However, we do need to guide the consumer, and inform them about how much of a certain food is considered a serving — and how many servings are in a container.
To do so, we will make the serving size more visual. For many recognizable container types, such as soda cans, bottles, and candy bars, we will use a stylized silhouette of the product to clearly depict how many servings are in the container.
For other foods, we will use shapes that slightly resemble the package, such as slightly rounded rectangular shapes, circles, and ovals.
This allows the consumer to visualize a serving, instead of having to guesstimate how many handfuls might or might not be in one serving.
Subsequently, this also painfully uncovers the absurdity of two servings being in a soda can, for example.
A note on serving sizes
These should be pessimistically indicated. We currently base serving sizes on a 2,000 calorie diet. This is deceptive, because it leads to smaller serving sizes. The number 2,000 comes from the basic metabolic rate of an average woman. That means, the average woman needs approximately 2,000 calories per day to stay alive. However, that’s not what we eat in reality. We eat much more than that — women too.
So we are basing our serving sizes on a desired number, not a realistic number.
A smaller suggested serving size means that people think they’ll be having 1 or 2 servings, but in reality they are having 2 or 3. Instead, we should base our serving sizes on a 3,000 calorie diet — 50% higher, and a lot closer to how much we actually eat.
This will increase the suggested serving size to be more realistic. A can of energy drink now becomes one serving, and so does a candy bar. A bag of crisps becomes three servings, instead of five or six. A head of cauliflower becomes two servings, instead of four.
All the way at the bottom, we find calories. This is a major change from the current label, where calories are presented as the single most important metric of a product.
The current nutrition facts label sends a wrong message, indicating that it doesn’t matter what types of food you eat, but it’s mostly about how many calories you consume.
However deceptive this is, calories do have meaning and are still a useful gauge for determining how much energy a product contains. Nevertheless, we cannot expect (and shouldn’t encourage per se) people to calorie-count, and we don’t want people to reason that high-calorie foods are always bad, and low-calorie foods are always good.
This is why the caloric value is included in the label, but not as prominently as before. We mention calories both per serving, and per 100 grams or milliliters. This way, a consumer can get an idea of how calorie-dense a certain food is, relatively.
Redesigning food labeling is no small task. It’s not something I can do on my own. That is why I’ve started with a proposal — something to set things in motion, but far from an end result.
The main goal of this is not to become the designer of the new nutrition facts label, but rather to set something in motion.
I will now start collecting feedback and try to gain momentum. Everyone is welcome to weigh in and share their opinion. I will start reaching out to certain experts in different fields — graphic design, nutrition, behavioral change— and see where we to go from there.
The most important thing right now is to hear from you, no matter your background. In the end, we are all consumers who want to be able to make the right food choices, with as little effort as possible.