Food Labels Makeover Might Actually Make Them Useful

nutrition labelYou know that little box on the side of your food package that tells you about the calories and the sugar and the protein and a seemingly random selection of vitamins and minerals? A lot of nutritionists and consumers have been complaining for years that it's not as helpful as it should be.

Well the FDA has finally heard the rumblings and is redesigning the nutrition label. While they put their bureaucratic heads together, GOOD magazine, Art Center College of Design’s Designmatters, and Berkeley's school of journalism station News 21 ran a contest for the public to create their own ideas of improved food labels. Let's hope the government is paying attention to the best ideas -- and overlooking the less helpful ones.


Ideas the FDA should steal:

Snack or Meal: Rather than "serving size" (we all know what a lie that is anyway -- like anyone really considers a Snapple lemonade to be two separate servings), the package tells you whether the total contents would make a snack or a meal. There's a color/size code to give you an idea of how healthy the food is, too.

Letter Grades: In addition to color codes showing nutritional value, this version of the label assigns grades for healthfulness. I like that it also includes "eco footprint."

Burn It Off: This label shows you how much exercise you would need to do in order to burn off the calories in the food. Concrete examples like that really give meaning to calorie counts. This label also includes a QR code for more information. 

Fooducate App: Fooducate, a brilliant nutrition blog, came up with a design that shows up on your phone instead of on the box. This has the potential to be more interactive, and there's a bit less room for manufacturers to put their own tricky spin on the labels.

Ideas that should go back to the drawing board:

Color Block Chaos: If you prefer food with a short list of ingredients, this label will work for you. There's a different color block for each ingredient, and the boxes vary in shape in proportion to how much of that ingredient is in the food. Then the nutrients are broken down by ingredient too. I was a fan at first, but then I started to wonder what a label for a frozen burrito would look like. Yikes! 

Label With Personality: I love the little cartoon characters on this food label. Eeek! Unhealthy! The images really get the point across. But alas, it's impractical -- food companies would surely howl (and sue) over frowny-faces on their packaging.

Less Is Not More: While a lot of simplicity goes a long way, I don't think the answer is to communicate less information than we already have.

Of course, no amount of brilliant design will ever solve one of the biggest problems we face: Food makers don't want their products to be seen in a negative light, ever. How much is too much sugar? Ask your doctor, but don't expect to find the whole answer on the box.

Do you think nutrition labels need to be redesigned?

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