Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Transforming Nutrition Labels

By Max SegalPublished September 30, 2013

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As nutrition science continues to advance and uncover the keys to selecting a proper diet, a plethora of health related data and information have become available to American consumers. If people want to become healthier and reduce their risk of potentially fatal ailments, then they need a way to easily decipher this information, such as labels that work by assigning scores in nutrition, naturalness, and welfare.
By Max Segal, Published 9/30/2013

Perhaps the best way to alleviate the immense pressure on the United States healthcare system is to promote healthier individual habits. This is certainly easier said than done, since it's hard to find a single street in the country that isn't littered with several tasty fast food chains. However, as nutrition science continues to advance and uncover the keys to selecting a proper diet, a plethora of health related data and information have become available to American consumers.  If people want to become healthier and reduce their risk of potentially fatal ailments, then they need a way to easily decipher this information.

The FDA requires that all commercially sold foods contain standardized nutrition labels, which list foods' nutritional contents in quantity and as a percentage of a subjectively prescribed ‘daily value'; however the labels—which were designed in 1993—are so complex and befuddling that many Americans skip over them when making dietary decisions. In fact, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota used eye-tracking software to determine exactly where consumers look when scanning a food's packaging and found that only 1 percent of participants took the time to check a food's fat, trans fat, and sugar contents.  What's more, those who did scrutinize labels were often incorrect in their interpretation of a food's nutritional value due to the subjective serving sizes printed on the labels.

In my mind, the issue with the labels is that they haven't caught up with modern conceptions of what constitutes healthfulness. Nearly half the label is dedicated to displaying the content of vitamins like B12 and K3, which are not generally used by consumers as determinants of good nutrition. What people do care about is whether or not their food contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs), pesticides, or artificial sugars, none of which are quantified on current nutrition labels.

This leaves the question of how we can increase label legibility in a way that reduces complexity while still preserving informative capability. Various media have already proposed concepts for a revamped label. One in particular, which first appeared in the New York Times Sunday Review in October of 2012, is particularly simple due to its use of a three color scheme to rate the healthfulness of different foods. The label works by assigning scores in nutrition, naturalness, and welfare (of laborers, animals, land, water, etc.) and then using a weighted combination of these scores to determine whether a food is green, yellow, or red. Green foods should be consumed most freely while yellow and red foods should be consumed in moderation.

This type of labeling system may seem a bit arbitrary and perhaps overly simplistic, but I don't believe that to be such a bad aspect. Any descriptive model that aims to reduce complexity is going to lose a bit of precision—a small price to pay.  Furthermore, a color system doesn't require shoppers to look at numbers and repeatedly make painstaking calculations over the course of a day.

Perhaps one shortfall of a color-coded system is that companies may find it easy to assign all of their products a green rating regardless of actual nutritional value. Some FDA oversight would therefore probably be necessary. An objective government administration could approve nutrition, naturalness, and welfare scores in a consistent and unbiased manner

Regardless of whether the label is transformed using a color system or some other simple identification method, action needs to be taken swiftly. The best way to reduce overall healthcare expenditures is to effectively diminish serious health ailments, and that starts with facilitating public knowledge of just what exactly we're eating.