You probably know the table of nutrition facts on almost any food package in the US. This FDA label is an informative and seminal work, possibly “the most reproduced design of the 20th and 21st century.” The proposed 2014 redesign seems like a subtle improvement, with small changes such as more realistic portion sizes, in your face caloric measurement, and hierarchical information. But will it promote life-changing healthy eating behavior for hungry customers and grocery shoppers?
The fact that the label hadn’t been revisited for over 20 years suggests that there were behemoth regulatory hurdles before considering any improvements. Although research and media continue to report declining diets and poor health, the label had sufficed to express the basic contents of food products.
If policymakers wish to encourage balanced eating, adjusting the label is only a pawn in this game. The labels now more clearly suggest nutritional priorities, but it doesn’t easily explain the what responsible choices are. It doesn’t compel people to take nutrition to heart (no pun intended). Most people probably don’t care enough about the dissection of food into impersonal numbers to do the math to make informed choices. Relevant and concise information in the right format and at the right time can increase awareness and healthier decisions.
For traffic control, a radar speed sign effectively provides real-time feedback to remind you of your current driving speed, and that actually reduces average speeds in that area. While it isn’t the final answer to safety, it is a relevant reminder that is actionable. The nutrition label, on the other hand, doesn’t give proactive guidance that is equatable with how people actually eat, and think about eating.
I don’t keep a tally in my head of all types of foods and nutrients I consume for the whole day, nor do I rigidly count my target calories so they are in daily equilibrium. I might think about overall quality of a single meal, if I’m getting enough variety, or some measure that’s easier to think about. Instead, the label assumes I can mentally quantify the 27 peanuts that satisfied my hunger, although the serving size is different. These facts fits the model of manually cataloging each nutritional subcomponent, or else ignoring it completely because you crave an old-fashioned milkshake. Most people have taken the latter approach.
While I support better labeling, the new nutrition label doesn’t have the power to address these underlying issues.
I imagine the label is something people purposefully ignore. I know I’ve been there. At a design lecture, I grabbed a Coke and only noticed the 140 calories because it was also shown separately from the nutrition label.
You can’t build nutrition by emphasizing calories alone though. Reinforcing calories as the primary measure of health leads to oxymoronic claims, such as this sugar advertisement in 1950s showing that three scoops of sugar have fewer calories than an apple.
By the time people glaze over the nutrition information, it might also be too late. Not many consumers will really scrutinize each item at the grocery store. They might check to see if there’s anything outrageous about an impulse buy, but during a busy day I doubt they are turning to the back of every box at the point of purchase.
Some apps and services are tackling the lack of personal feedback, clarifying nutritional goals, and arming people with positive eating recommendations and routines. I haven’t given many of them a try, but the fact that they exist reveals that people struggle to make sense of what they eat. They want to know what they are doing, as well as receive guidance on what are good options, or warnings when they could be deficient in something like Vitamin D. Would it then be in my best interest to chug whole milk or grill some portabello mushrooms? The nutrition labels haven’t told us.