March 12, 2012

Rethinking the Food Label

Have you ever found yourself staring at the side of a cereal box or the back of a bag of chips trying to figure out what all those numbers and percent daily values mean? Or if you are trying to stick with a low-fat diet because of your heart disease or diabetes, whether it would be an approved item and if so, how much of it you could eat? Sometimes it feels as though trying to read a nutrition label is as challenging as deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, although those at least are sort of pictures so you can guess the meaning based on that.

Well, the government decided to redesign nutrition labels back in January 2011 to make it more user-friendly (bet you didn't even notice). The new label, called the Nutrition Key, is supposed to help consumers more easily determine how healthy a particular food is. Unfortunately, the only thing that seems to be easier about the new label is that it is located on the front of the package. It still relies on all those confusing numbers and percent daily values that most people struggle to make sense of. (In fact, because making sense of a nutrition label is so complicated, one way of standardized methods for evaluating a person's health literacy level is the Newest Vital Sign that asks folks to answer a set of questions based on a nutrition label).

With all the effort being made to improve health communication and make plain-language the standard, you would think government would want to transition away from a label full of numbers and crazy terms towards a more pictoral system like they use in Britain or Scandinavia. In response to the government's failed attempt at improving nutrition labels, GOOD magazine, in partnership News21, created Project: Redesign the Food Label. They asked designers, food policy experts and the average Joe to think about how they would redesign nutrition labels. Would they stick with a design that focused on calorie counts and percent daily values or would they completely re-imagine the label and evaluate a food based on some other criteria such as it's quality, carbon footprint or cultural significance? How would you redesign the food label? What information do you think is important for consumers to know? How would you present that information? You can check out the winning designs here.

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