The design concept above, by San Francisco-based Renee Walker, recently won Rethink the Food Label, a competition that asked designers to make the health info on packaged goods easier to understand. Mounted by the UC Berkeley j-school’s News21 program and Good magazine — with powerhouse jurors, including “liberal foodie intellectual” Michael Pollan and anti-sugar crusader Robert Lustig — the contest isn’t part of any official push to revamp packaging but could serve up a heaping of inspiration to the FDA, which is in the process of revising the national nutrition label. “[T]he Berkeley project has generated dozens of new ideas that are likely to be considered by the United States Food and Drug Administration,” the New York Times reported last week.
One of the big shortcomings of the existing food label is that, while it lists ingredients, it doesn’t give you any sense of the quantity of each ingredient. A box of mac and cheese could boast that it’s “made with real cheese!” but for all you know that means 1% is real cheese and the rest is CheezWhiz. Walker proposes using color-coded boxes to show the relative proportions of a product’s top ingredients. An apple, for instance, would just be a big red box that says “apple.” A box of mac and cheese, on the other hand, would show a large brown box to denote its primary ingredient “wheat flour,” then smaller boxes in different colors to highlight less prominent ingredients, like cheese, milk fat, and additives.
Another flaw in the current label: It doesn’t have any shorthand for designating whether food is healthy or not; all you see are percentages, which are guaranteed to make the eyes of the mathematically incompetent among us glaze over. Walker’s solution: attach a handy-dandy thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the percentages, when relevant. For instance, the low carbs, high fiber, and plentiful vitamin C in our aforementioned apple each get a thumbs-up. The high calories and sodium in our mac and cheese each get a thumbs-down.
The jurors are quick to point out that the winning label and the contributions of other finalists — which you can see here — aren’t the last word on food packaging. Pollan doubts whether Walker’s color-coded boxes would work with complicated products, like Lucky Charms or PowerBars, and juror Laura Brunow Miner worries that they’re too big to fit on small packaging. But the point of the contest wasn’t to concoct the perfect label. It was to show that, with a little creativity, the existing model can be vastly improved upon to help consumers make smarter, healthier decisions. “[I]t’s a step in the right direction,” Pollan says of Walker’s design. “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.”
For more Co.Design coverage of food-label design, go here.
[Images courtesy of Rethink the Food Label]