Featured Advice and Design

We paired talented designers with food thinkers and here are the results.

Scroll down to see original designs by Renee Walker and informed by Harold McGee

Picture of Gary Taubes

Gary Taubes

author of Good Calories Bad Calories

We spoke with Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories Bad Calories. He contributed feedback on the current Nutrition Facts label to help inspire new designs.

Q: What is wrong with the current Nutrition Label?

A: Many things. Short answer is it’s too small and too hard to read. Second, it focuses on the wrong information. The fat and sodium content of the foods are not nearly as important as the sugar and digestible carbohydrate content, at least by my research on the subject. So giving fat, total fat, sodium, etc., is misdirecting attention away from the factors that actually cause weight gain, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, etc. As for the list of ingredients, it’s always too small for anyone over the age of 40 (or at least me) to read without reading glasses. If the purpose of the nutrition label is to tell us what contents of the food are likely to give us heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome or just to make us fat, then, as I argue in my books, they should be telling us about sugar and digestible carbohydrates (the non-fiber carbs) and little else is meaningful to the lay shopper.

Q: What is the most important information people should have when choosing what food to buy and what to eat?

A: Assuming we’re talking about foods that require nutrition labels — i.e., packaged and processed foods — and that these foods are still mostly food and not some bizarre combination of toxic chemicals, than they should know how much sugar it contains (sucrose or high-fructose syrups or other types of caloric sweeteners) and the content of non-fiber carbohydrates (the digestible carbohydrates). A distant third might be processed vegetable oils.

Q: How would you change the Nutrition Label to help consumers make healthier, more informed choices about the food they eat?

A: Having spent time thinking about it over the past few days, , I’d say the label should show in some kind of graphic, easy-to-get-form, how much sugar (caloric sweetener, to use the FDA parlance) is in the food, how many digestible carbohydrates, total, and maybe whatever the second or third most common ingredient is other than sugar, refined carbs and water. And then, as I said, perhaps processed vegetable oils should be shown as well.

We paired Food thinker Harold mcgee with talented designer Renee Walker to spark a conversation about an innovative and useful food label.

Harold McGee

Harold McGee

New York Times Food Writer

Q: What is wrong with the current Nutrition Label?

A: I think it distracts and confuses with unimportant information, and obscures the important facts. As a table of numbers, it’s also difficult to read and interpret.

Q: What is the most important information people should have when choosing what food to buy and what to eat?

A: People should know what ingredients the food is made from, what balance of nutrients those ingredients supply, and how a standard serving of the food would contribute to their nutrient intake for the day.

Q: How would you change the Nutrition Label to help consumers make healthier, more informed choices about the food they eat?

A: I would make one part of the label primarily graphic, conveying information by shapes and proportions, and one part primarily alphanumeric, like the current label.

My collaboration with Renee Walker was wonderfully thought-provoking, and left me wishing there’d been time for another round or two. Out of it came a couple of ideas that were new to me. One is that simply indicating the total number of ingredients in a product can give a quick sense for whether it’s a food that a cook would make or a largely synthetic approximation of such a food. And the other is that scaling the nutrient contents to the proportion of daily calories provided can show at a glance what you’re getting from a product for your caloric investment, whether it provides more or less of its fair share of sodium or fat, of calcium or protein. This was a really eye-opening experience for me. Bravo to the organizers for devising such a productive approach to the major public-health challenge of our time!

Renee Walker and Harold McGee’s Final Design

Renee Walker

Graphic Designer

Having been partnered with Harold McGee on this project, together we decided to focus on a redesign of the current nutrition fact label as a realistic approach to the implementation of a new label design in the United States.

The final submitted design is intended to bring the ingredients to the forefront of the label as the most important element. It uses a color coded system to indicate food groups, a mathematically proportionate representation of ingredients by order of listing, and calls out the most important nutrition facts using color of ingredient to which it references. It brings to question the amount of ingredients in a food and the types of ingredients, aiming to bring attention to what is real food and what is processed.

Simple iconography is introduced to indicate serving size and a thumbs up or thumbs down for whether a excessive amount of ingredient is good or bad. Over all it is meant to bring important information to the forefront and at closer to an at a glance approach making nutrition information more accessible and meaningful.

I do not see this label as an answer to the current problem with how we choose our food— there are too many economic and cultural problems at play here—but I do see this collaboration as an opportunity for us to think about how designers might begin to partner with scientists, journalists, and other disciplines so they may begin to bring clarity and attention where it is needed most. It saddens me to think that our brand driven culture that design is most often associated with has been a large part of the many problems we are facing today.

Some see big corporations as the most likely place for change, with Walmart introducing organic foods and many other brands marketing healthier foods. I think the answer is more complex and involves a rethinking of the systems we have created around food production and distribution. Collaborations between designers and scientists, nutritionists, and food writers seem like a great place to start.

Renee Walker other designs

Check out her blog for more graphics