As you may have heard last week, there are changes coming to our nutrition labels.
I may have shouted an enthusiastic, “YEAH!” when I heard this headline on the radio news. I’ve been waiting so long for this. I actually care about these things, most likely because I love food and my professional focus is communications.
Sidenote: I’m a huge fan of Michelle Obama’s work to combat childhood obesity, and I was thrilled to hear of her support of these changes.
I’m excited because these new regulations are an indicator of change. The new labels will not be perfect, but they’re a sign of progress on something that has changed very little over time.
Back in college, 21-year-old me wrote an essay for my History of Graphic Design class about how nutrition labels were outdated and that we needed new solution. The essay assignment was the opportunity to combine my biggest interests at the time: food and design.
So I dug it up to share with you here, untouched and embarrassingly confident, just for kicks. Or maybe to prove that I really do care about these things.
A Hard Nut to Crack: Public Health, Food Packaging, and the Nutrition Facts Label
It isn’t every day that an information design system earns praise as high as “…a clean testimonial of civilization, a statement of social responsibility, and a masterpiece of graphic design,” but designer Massimo Vignelli’s enthusiastic opinion of the Nutrition Facts label (also referred to as the Nutrition Information Panel) conveys the monumental, positive impact this system, mandated for most food products under the provisions of the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) per the recommendations of the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ Food and Drug Administration(FDA), and designed by design firm Berkey Belser in 1994, made upon American public food consumption and general health. I presume the Nutrition Facts label was designed with the consumer’s wellbeing in mind. Yet almost two decades later, two-thirds of Americans are overweight and half of those are considered health-threateningly obese. Much of this is attributed to our increased consumption of highly processed “fast” and pre-packaged foods. In this essay, I will argue that the Nutrition Facts label currently found on most packaged foods is outdated and no longer effectively communicates information to which consumers should be exposed in a manner that is easily understood. My concern over the inadequacy of available nutrition information within fast food and traditional restaurant operations is significant but lies beyond the scope of this essay. It is the responsibility of designers to develop an effective means of communicating necessary information to consumers in a way that will influence their purchasing and eating habits, working toward improved public health. The implications of a society’s health as it relates to eating habits permeate every aspect of life and life expectancy, and influence, and are impacted by social, technological, economic, political, and even environmental factors that affect our lives every day.
Berkey Belser’s design of the Nutrition Facts label rightfully earned a Presidential Award of Design Excellence in 1997 from Bill Clinton for its achievement in organizing a complex system of information across a variety of applications. As a child of the late 1980’s, it was my assumption that nutrition facts had been present on food labels “forever” because the labels have been on food since I can remember, and I took for granted that consumers had always been made aware of what ingredients and nutrients were contained within each product package. Upon further research, however, I discovered that before the NLEA, nutrient and ingredient information was mostly voluntary, vague, and hardly useful. The implementation of the Nutrition Facts labels was monumental in providing consumers with information that affected purchasing decisions and in turn, their health.
Over the past 40 years, science has provided us with links between diet, nutrition, and long-term health, leading to the implementation of standardized, regulated formats for presenting nutrient content on packaged foods as means for informing and influencing consumer choices and comparison between similar products. The biggest challenge for designers of the new label was the exceptionally large size and variability of the target market; basically any human capable of walking into a store and purchasing a product could comprise the target market. Everyone eats and everyone must purchase food at some point in life. With this in mind, Berkey Belser faced an unusual amount of obstacles, including low levels of literacy among a large portion of the public, consumers with English as a second language, a growing population of older Americans with diminishing eyesight, younger children just learning to read, concerns over food allergies such as nut, soy, and wheat sensitivities, and substrate-related production concerns such as wax paper and cellophane that tend to blur small print. Through simple design elements, such as a boldfaced title, a one-point rule around the label to define its space, bold rules as separators, and defined text point sizes, Belser channeled complicated information into a format that appears, upon first glance, easy enough to digest.
Unfortunately, several problematic issues exist with the Nutrition Facts label design. While the “Percent Daily Value” system should be praised for its attempt to serve as a reference and to guide consumers toward better choices, it fails to recognize that many consumers know little or nothing about the relative importance or inherent value of various nutrients, vitamins, and in general, any of the scientific, medicinal terminology used on the labels. “Fat saturated with what? This Twinkie only provides 5% of my recommended Daily Value of sodium so should I eat a few more? But what how many should I eat if I shouldn’t consume 2,000 calories in one day?” are questions any poorly informed consumer might pose when studying the label. The label attempts to apply standards of caloric consumption to an audience that represents a wide spectrum of factors that affect food energy usage, such as body composition, age, gender, level of activity, basal metabolic rate and more. The label relies on text, numbers, and percentages to communicate a complex message that is difficult to quickly sift through during a dash through the grocery store with three screaming children in tow, or to compare against a similar product in a cramped and crowded convenience store. Additionally, in many instances ingredient lists are presented in a manner that makes reading them nearly impossible. Tiny point-sizes, condensed typefaces, and reduced kerning and leading make them difficult to scrutinize and plow for undesired ingredients.
As a result of the difficulties posed by the current Nutrition Facts label, various manufacturers and non-governmental organizations have attempted to provide consumers with supplemental design solutions that deliver “nutrition briefs” in order to further aid their decision-making. Nabisco and other food manufacturers have recently introduced packs of individually-wrapped products that contain specific amounts of calories as a way to target consumers who may have concerns over general caloric intake, but overlook the “big picture” of the product and its ingredients, which may be high in fat (total, saturated, trans, etc.), sodium, sugar, and ingredients that often accommodate highly-processed foods that have been proven detrimental to health such as partially hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup. These “100-Calorie Packs” boil down to marketing gimmicks, providing products that are highly-processed just like their full-calorie counterparts, potentially chock full of harmful or at least unhealthful ingredients, individually-wrapped and therefore potentially more detrimental to the environment, and often relatively overpriced to boot. 
Not all attempts to provide consumers with more information are marketing ploys at their core, however, and the Produce for Better Health Foundation, an American non-profit consumer education foundation, works to motivate people to eat more fruits and veggies to improve public health through its “Fruits & Veggies—More Matters” campaign and website that recently replaced the “5 A Day—The Color Way” campaign. The logo appears on the back label of products that meet the Foundation’s high standards and serves as a quick reference for consumers as well as encouragement to choose more healthful foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Similarly, The Kroger Company, a national supermarket chain, offers its Private Selection Organic products with labels that feature not only the “Fruit & Veggies—More Matters” logo, but are accompanied by an ambitious, albeit complex, black wheel-wedge graphic on the front that serves to provide basic nutrient information and a quick-glance analysis of what nutrients the product may be “high-” or “low in,” such as fiber or fat.
In our efforts to improve the current label system, Americans should consider the methods used by foreign countries conveying nutrient information to consumers. European supermarkets, more specifically those in Britain, have recently become battlegrounds for nutrition label wars, with some manufacturers supporting the Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) system that relies on percentages, similarly to the current American Nutrition Facts label, and others that use a new “Traffic Light” method. The traffic-light labeling system, developed by the governmental Food Standards Agency, was designed as a basic way to deliver information to consumers based on the idea that “green means go,” while red means “have the food[s] occasionally, or as a treat, but…try eating them in smaller amounts,” and amber falls cautiously in the middle. The colors are accompanied by text-based nutrient information for further clarification. However, today the traffic light system is only recommended by the Food Standards Agency, and a quick survey of participating brands’ packaging demonstrates how the traffic light graphic treatment varies in size, shape, and general appearance, presenting the conditions for the possibility of increased levels of consumer confusion.
While most graphic treatments of nutrient information appear to have the consumer’s best interest in mind, the variety of presentations and lack of a coherent message can serve to confuse the consumer. Today Americans are constantly bombarded with information via a growing number of mediums and many have become conditioned to ignoring, skimming, and scanning whatever is thrown our way. How can we present literally vital health information to a consumer that doesn’t care to view it, doesn’t want to take the time to decipher it, and or can’t fully understand its importance? There is no doubt the current Nutrition Facts label is a major accomplishment of design and society, but it is now time for the next step. We need a solution that simplifies the most important aspects pertinent to product comparison and rapid purchase decision-making while simultaneously provides specific details about nutrient content, ingredients, and other information should the consumer choose a more in-depth analysis of the product. The “quick glance” aspects should rely more on visual solutions, while the specific details should fit within a formal, information-based system that can be applied across a wide variety of products yet be easily interpreted by most anyone. According to the December 2007 issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter, the FDA has held a public meeting on front-label nutrition symbols, which is a step in the right direction.
With this in mind, it is now time for designers to learn from the successes and faults of the current Nutrition Facts panel as well as alternative or foreign food label systems. We should utilize skills in marketing, information design, semiotics, and linguistics and should combine forces with the government, manufacturers, health care organizations, and consumers to develop a means of conveying the information consumers need to know. We must develop a format that effectively informs and guides purchasing decisions and eating habits in order to positively affect the way citizens of America and the world function within social, technological, economic, political, and environmental areas on a day-to-day and long-term basis.
 Massimo Vignelli, “A Masterpiece,” AIGA Journal, reproduced at Greenfield Belser, Ltd., http://greenfieldbelser.com/big_ideas/?NewsID=75.
 FDA Press Release, 2 May 1994, http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/NEW00480.html, (November 2007).
 “Fast Stats A to Z—Overweight,” National Center for Health Statistics, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/overwt.htm.
Massimo Vignelli, “A Masterpiece,” AIGA Journal, reproduced at Greenfield Belser, Ltd., http://greenfieldbelser.com/big_ideas/?NewsID=75.
 Burkey Belser, “Designing the Food Label: Nutrition Facts” AIGA Journal, reproduced at Greenfield Belser, Ltd., http://greenfieldbelser.com/big_ideas/?NewsID=58.
 “100-Calorie snacks are convenient, but at what cost?” The Detroit News, http://www.detnews.com/2005/eatsdrinks/0509/23/E06-324247.htm.
 “About Us.” Fruits & Veggies More Matters. http://www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org/?page_id=9.
 “Supermarkets in label wars.” BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/5133786.stm.
 “Traffic light labeling.” Food Standards Agency. http://www.eatwell.gov.uk/foodlabels/trafficlights/#cat334837.
 Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D. December 2007. “Hail Britannia!” Nutrition Action Healthletter. 34(10): 2.
Do you pay attention to serving sizes on nutrition labels?
Will the new “added sugars” number affect your buying decision?