Numbers by the color: new approaches to nutrition labeling

Samples of winning labels designed by Renee Walker. (Image: walkawayrene.com)

Food labels are designed to convey a great deal of information. Not only do they tell us what the product, ideally, looks like but they’re designed, too, to tell us how much we’re buying, what’s contained inside, and to promise our lives will be somehow enhanced with the purchase of that canister of Pringles. What they don’t tell us, of course, is of what the food inside is actually comprised.

Nutrition labeling has garnered more and more attention over the past few years as consumers have begun to take a greater interest in the foods they eat. Granted, much of that new-found interest stems from the dismayingly high numbers of food recalls but, hey, interest is interest. Interestingly enough, that desire to know often turns out to be on a direct collision course with what food producers actually want to tell you.

Last month, Good magazine, Designmatters, and News21, announced the winner of a contest to design a more informative, user-friendly nutrition label. The winner, San Francisco-based designer Renee Walker, devised a dramatically simple, easy-to-comprehend label that with little more than a glance, can provide shoppers with a pretty accurate idea as to what happens to be in that package of tortillas or macaroni and cheese.

Using color codes – blue for dairy, for example, green for plants, red for fruit, different shades of gray for various additives – Walker devised a label that tells you almost at a glance how much of that mac and cheese is comprised of grains or cheese or additives. As it stands now, while labels do tell you what’s inside your grape jelly, they don’t reveal the ratio of grapes to sugar.

Further information reveals the recommended daily allowance for the product’s various nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, fats, and sodium. They’re there in big black block letters, easy to read, easy to understand. Will this label ever see the grocery shelves? No.

But that wasn’t really the point.

“[T]he point of the contest wasn’t to concoct the perfect label,” observed the web site Fast Co.Design. “It was to show that, with a little creativity, the existing model can be vastly improved upon to help consumers make smarter, healthier decisions.”

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