Our panel of food thinkers and designers

Check out their ideas for a new nutrition label.

Michael Pollan

Q. What is wrong with the current Nutrition Label?

A. Not sure, but very few people use it and many find it confusing. The focus on nutrients is probably inevitable but it distracts from the issue, whether you’re getting real food or not. Fiber for example is a slippery category, there are different types, and so manufacturers can game the system by adding irrelevant inert materials to food. Soluble and insoluble are different and the fiber in grain or fruit, for example, is important possibly because of what accompanies it, so how do you capture that?

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

A. The degree of processing matters more, very often, than the nutrients as expressed in a label. So how do we capture that?

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

A. This is your job, but think about how to capture degree of processing. Read Carlos Monteiro’s stuff on this.

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan has written books and articles about the places where nature and culture intersect: on our plates, in our farms and gardens, and in the built environment. He is the author of four New York Times bestsellers: Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto; The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals; and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World.

Michael Pollan’s Design Picks

Michael Pollan's first place pickMichael Pollan's second place pickMichael Pollan's third place pick

1. Renee Walker:

Walker’s design is dramatic, intriguing and holds great promise. I liked being able to see the visual breakdown of foods, although I wonder how her design would work with more complicated products, like Lucky Charms, say, or a power bar. Even so, it’s a step in the right direction. What I’d like to see next is some sort of color coding for the food groups and some attempt to show the degree of processing of various foods. Eating doesn’t have to be complicated; figuring out what’s in your food shouldn’t be either.
2. Bradley Mu:

Mu’s hack of the traditional label is easy to grasp and adds a new set of valuable metrics. I like his attempt and handling of ingredients but found it slightly confusing. He’ll need a key to make this clearer. Still, he gets extra points for addressing the glycemic index, a number that’s now relevant for at least 30 percent of America’s adult population.

3. Frankling Gaw

This one is perhaps the most plausible. It’s familiar, yet more informative than the current label. I like the visualization of serving size, and percent daily value. Both offer a quick, tangible reference for the consumer. One thing I’d like to see included is total calories per package, since most Americans aren’t counting out fifteen tortilla chips before put down the bag.

Laura Brunow Miner

Q. What is wrong with the current Nutrition Label?

A. Mainstream nutrition education tends to take a “one size fits all” approach. Nutrition labels inform us of values like sodium/protein/carbohydrate without attention to the context.

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

A. A quick comprehension of how those foods address people’s individual health concerns or goals.

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

A. I try not to judge the decisions of designers in other industries without knowing the constraints and challenges they face. I know how hard it is to cram all the required information into the allotted space. But anytime we can apply new understanding about education, nutrition, or information design to an old problem, I think we can make real progress. One option would be to take the web’s current trend towards picture book style layouts (a la The Oatmeal) to holistically address the dietary considerations for different conditions and diseases.

Laura Bruno Miner

Laura Brunow Miner is a designer, editor, and photography lover in San Francisco. She founded online photo documentary magazine Pictory and a series of creative retreats including Phoot Camp and Eat Retreat.

Laura Brunow Miner’s Design Picks

Laura Miner's first place pick is Joey Brunelle's designLaura Miner's second place pick is Dylan Brown's designLaura Miner's third place pick is Renee Walker's design

1. Joey Brunelle:

I think Joey’s design works because it’s realistic for a consumer to read and benefit from. It uses common iconography, like the red/green/yellow (stoplight) which I saw in a few designs, in an incredibly simple way. It’s one of the few designs that works at a glance.

2. Dylan Brown:

While I find Dylan’s aesthetic styling to be unrealistic, I think his ideas are great. Listing calories in terms of exercise (instead of percentage of daily intake) makes a lot more sense, and is overall closer to being accurate for each individual. I also like the separation of the processed from true ingredients, and the food score.

3. Renee Walker:

I don’t exactly understand how Renee’s attractive but seemingly impractical large, colored boxes would work in terms of fitting on the side of a box or on a tiny bar, but I think the highlighting of certain ingredients works, and the overall design is quite pleasing.

Robert Lustig, MD

Q. What is wrong with the current Nutrition Label?

A. The most important item is not on the label. That would be “Added Sugars.” They list total sugars, but this includes lactose and the endogenous sucrose found in the food itself. These are not problems. A good example is yogurt. A Plain Greek Yogurt has 16 gm of sugar (all lactose). A Yoplait yogurt has 27 grams of sugar. The second problem is what constitutes a portion size. The Nutrition label should list the facts for the entire package, e.g. a 20 oz. soda.

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

A. How much sugar was added, and how much fiber was removed in order to make that food.

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

A. I would only have 5 items listed: Calories, Salt, Trans-fat (and not 0 for <0.5), added sugar, fiber left, and fiber removed.

Robert Lustig

Robert H. Lustig, M.D. is a Professor of Clinical Pediatrics, in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Lustig is a neuroendocrinologist, with basic and clinical training relative to hypothalamic development, anatomy, and function. Dr. Lustig’s research focuses on the regulation of energy balance by the central nervous system.

Robert Lustig’s Design Picks

Robert Lustig's first place pick is Joey Brunelle's designRobert Lustig's second place pick is Franklin Gaw's designRobert Lustig's third place pick is Nick Huard's design

1. Joey Brunelle:

Good: Graphic representation of %DV; Size of calories: snack vs. meal; Stoplight colors; Transfat amount; Nutrients added vs. nutrients removed; What’s been added vs. what’s been removed; No subjective assessment or grade. Bad: No ingredients list; No ecofootprint

2. Franklin Gaw

Good: Serving size, and servings per container %DV; Transfat info; Sugar info, but doesn’t have a DRI; Dietary fiber; Amounts and bar graphs of nutrients; Ingredients list; Food allergy info. Bad: No omega-3 fat data; Fiber is not broken down into endogenous vs. added.

3. Nick Huard

Good: Serving size, and servings per package; Processing, locality, and sustainability indices; Fat breakdown, including transfats and omega-3’s %DV; Unprocessed fiber; Added sugar and sodium. Bad: No info on how health metrics assessed; No ingredients list.

4. Dylan Brown (HM)

Good: Easy to read; Scale of health assessment %DV; Eco footprint; Fiber; Servings per container; Stoplight colors. Bad: Scale is subjective; No serving size; No explanation of what endogenous vs. what’s added; No ingredients list.

Andrew Vande Moere

Q. What is wrong with the current Nutrition Label?

A. Numbers, percentages, hard to understand nutrition terminology, difficult to compare proportions: people do not tend to choose what to buy or what to eat by interpreting mathematical values or comparing chemical compounds.

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

A. Each person is different, also in what they find ‘important’ when choosing a food to buy or eat. Ideally, a nutrition label should accommodate different forms of exploration, comparison and sense-making, based on varying personal motivations or even situations (i.e. available time to read the label), and based on one’s personal unique context (e.g. health, age, gender).

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

A. I would propose to take the knowledge gathered from marketing, social psychology, economics, and visualization—in particular those that have investigated the value of attractive, compelling, persuasive labels, logos, branding and the presentation of products—and exploit this knowledge to better inform consumers in an informative as well as enjoyable way.

Andrew Vande Moere

Andrew Vande Moere is an Associate Professor at the Department of Architecture of K.U.Leuven, Belgium. His academic research deals with the topics of data visualization, ubiquitous computing and media architecture. Vande Moere is also the author of the blog Information Aesthetics.

Andrew Vande Moere’s Design Picks

Andrew Vande Moere's first place pick is Bradley Mu's designAndrew Vande Moere's second place pick is Renee Walker's designAndrew Vande Moere's third place pick is Tommy McCall's design

1. Bradley Mu

(+) This is a very graphical solution, which stood out from the others because it is motivated by an overall goal to incentivize food producers to change their products, so their food labels would contain more “unlocked” icons, or more “green” (thus “good”) ingredients. Instead of using gaming as a visual metaphor, it is used as an incentive to encourage the redesign of food products, and not only of food labels. The labels show a consistent design reasoning, and the bar graphs are informative and minimalistic, while not making up the majority of allocated space. The color coding is consistent, simple and meaningful.
(-) I had to read the explanation to understand what the bold-style font means in the ingredient list (while the green color code was more evident). I interpreted this differently than what was meant, but it would be interesting to test how people in general provide meaning to visual treatment of text. More particularly, hough I appreciate the idea of coding the ingredient list in a meaningful way, I believe people are not able to interpret multiple mappings (i.e. of color, and bold style, and italics style) in an intuitive or meaningful way. The infographic illustrations seem consistent, though could benefit from some small fine-tuning, such as the addition of an explicit 2000 tick at the “calories” circular graph (and what would happen if a food product had more than 2000cal? or more than 100% fat in comparison to the ideal daily intake?). Without the explicit explanation, the ‘red light’ color coding was unclear to me at first. The “easy to read” table/grid layout might need some optimization: I first read this layout as “Vitamin A: 8g” and kept looking for a Protein value… The Glycemic Index graph would need some contextualization: it is unclear why it looks different from the other bar graphs, and why its title is treated as important as the title “one serving”.

2. Walker Renee

(+) This is another visual-centric approach to redesigning the food label. It contains an original idea to use a treemap to denote the ingredients, which by itself acts as an attractive though still informative eye-catcher. It follows a contemporary graphic design style, although that might be seen as a negative by some, as a food label should be able to withstand the test of time. The label also contains a form of interpretative context, by way of a thumbs ‘up’ or ‘down’ iconography. The color mapping seems more motivated by style rather than meaning.
(-) The ingredient treemap graph at the top would be ideal to show the ingredients as an hierarchical dataset. For example, the ‘additives’ rectangle could be further subdivided, or the ‘frozen vegetables’ rectangle could be showing the relative amounts of ‘broccoli’ or ‘peas’ that are actually present in the package. In that sense, the label also does not contain detailed ingredient information (e.g. knowing the exact ‘additives’ might be important for some customers), and might become problematic for products with many ingredients. The graphic design highly emphasizes the percentage values of nutrients (by using a bold, large font in a centered location), though they only make sense in combination with the nutrient labels, which are a bit squeezed between the bar graphs and require quite some effort to recognize and read. I am also unsure what the 2-colored bar graphs mean: for instance, the apple shows 17% fiber, though part of the bar is black, and part of the bar is red. Some percentage values are colored, although the reasoning for this is not immediately evident: sometimes it seems to highlight an unhealthy value, sometimes it denotes a healthy fact. The bar graph / nutrient fact list contains different elements for each product (and is sorted by a “proportionate representation of ingredients” according to the accompanying description), which might confuse people who like to quickly compare values from different products. If I understand correctly, nutrient facts would thus be listed at different positions on each product, or even not be present at all. However, in many ways, showing an ingredient is *not* present is important as well!

3. Tommy McCall

(+) This label follows a highly stylized approach, which seems influenced by the current popularity of infographic illustrations. Many detailed facts are made available through a visual format. As a visualization addict, I felt this label should be included in my shortlist, as I believe in the power of visualization to summarize information in an intuitive way. However, some rethinking and fine-tuning of this design would still be highly beneficial.
(-) Some of the graphs are difficult to understand, let alone interpret. The “serving equivalent” pie chart (?) seems to attempt to compare a meal, with a dish, with a nibble. From the data it contains I understand that fifteen nibbles equals one dish, and four dishes equals one meal, though this does not correspond to what is shown in the accompanying graph (i.e. in terms of surface area). The dissection of the hamburger in its parts is intuitive, though is still confusing (e.g. the burger / 235 calories connects a hollow circle with a filled one, and these mapping carry a meaning). How this technique would work with less illustrative food products is unclear. The illustration also only focuses on calories and a binary value (whole versus refined food), which seems a missed opportunity for such a refined and detailed representation. I cannot understand the “Total amount per serving” graph, where I am guessing the radius corresponds to % daily value and the angle is mapped by the weight (or random)? What can I learn from this? I actually would assume the black outlined circle is an ‘ideal’ value that I would need to reach, but this is contrary to the facts. The repeated use of filled versus empty circles to denote ‘whole’ versus ‘refined’ food and ‘naturally’ versus ‘processed’ food would be confusing to those people that quickly scan the label and miss the difference in mapping. These terms could also be better aligned.

Michael Jacobson Ph.D

Q. What is wrong with the current Nutrition Label?

A. First, there’s a lot right with the Nutrition Facts label, which is why tens of millions of health-conscious people use it to help them choose packaged foods lower in the “baddies,” such as too many calories or too much sodium, trans fat, refined sugars, and saturated fat. But nutrition labels didn’t have nearly as great an impact on what companies produce and what people eat as had been hoped 20 years ago. The mass of numbers, percentages, and scientific terms are confusing at best and, at worst, like a foreign language to even educated shoppers. That’s why it’s worth thinking about how best to make the label more useful to the average consumer.

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

A. The label is a nutrition label, because it is the nutritional quality of foods that has an enormous impact on health and about which people most want information: the fat in processed and unprocessed meat and dairy products, the sugar in soft drinks and candies, the salt in just about everything, and the fiber in just about nothing. Other matters—whether the foods were grown organically, their carbon footprint, treatment of animals, whether a farm or processor is unionized, etc.—are important to many people and could be communicated somewhere on the label (or via a QR code), but the nutrition label should focus on nutrition.

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

A. The Nutrition Facts label could use some simplifying and clarification. Simplify the top and highlight the calories by stating “Half-cup serving: 300 calories.” Drop “Calories from fat” because it’s the type of fat that’s most important. Change the “sugars” line to “added sugars,” with a percentage of a new Daily Value. Drop the little table showing information for 2,000 and 2,500 calories, which I doubt many people use. And the line for trans fat could be dropped if the FDA banned, as it should, partially hydrogenated oil.To put the amounts of fat, saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars in context, those lines should be printed in red to show when they’re high and the word “high” should be included.

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., is co-founder and executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). CSPI is a key player in battles against obesity, cardiovascular disease, and other health problems, using such tactics as education to legislation to litigation. Jacobson has written numerous books and reports, including Nutrition Scoreboard, Six Arguments for a Greener Diet, Salt: the Forgotten Killer, and Liquid Candy: How Soft Drinks are Harming Americans’ Health.

Michael Jacobson’s Design Picks

Michael Jacobson's first place pick is Dylan Brown's designMichael Jacobson's second place pick is Josh Jeffrey's designMichael Jacobson's third place pick is Renee Walker's design

1. Dylan Brown:

I like the minimalist approach. Clear lettering, clear grades with added color-coding, and no fancy, space-taking graphs for people to puzzle over. Nothing extraneous about growing practices, GMOs and whether the workers at the package manufacturer belonged to a union!—that information belongs elsewhere. If anything, this label could convey somewhat more information, such as serving sizes. Too bad the food industry would never allow “F” ratings to go on their labels. I’d dispense with the eight squares at the top and just say “8 servings per package.” Details: replace sugars with added sugars; replace fat with saturated fat. I’m skeptical “distance traveled” could be easily calculated for many foods…or enforceable.

2. Josh Jeffrey:

I like the clear typography and big print. The “health-o-meter” is clever, though it should be supplemented with a numerical score, a la NuVal. And the high–low indicator for several key nutrients also is clever. The “What’s Good” and “What’s Bad” section includes lucid explanations. Too bad the food industry would never allow “What’s Bad” to go on their labels. Details:The %DVs are all incorrect, saturated fat should list the %DV, and total sugars should be replaced with added sugars.

3. Renee Walker:

There’s a lot I don’t like about this label: serving sizes should use words (and possibly omit the illustration to save space); the symbols to the left of the percentages are unclear; the graph takes up a lot of space and probably would not be understood by the very people whom you’d like to use the label; “amount of ingredients” (I assume that means “number of ingredients”) is pretty meaningless (good chefs use many ingredients; it’s not the number, but their identity that matters); the nutrients are not consistent from food to food; should use added sugars instead of total sugars; and saturated fat should be indicated instead of total fat. So what’s there left to like? I like the bold, colorful rectangles showing how much of which ingredients are in the food. (Of course, just listing percentages in the ingredient label would save a huge amount of space, but this graphic is a lot more attractive and easier to understand.)