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Will these new food labels make the cut?

The fact that Delicious Living’s Senior Food Editor Elisa Bosley has to offer step-by-step instructions on how to read a food label tells me that something is wrong with the current system.

But how can we fix it? Because I’m admittedly design impaired, I’m not sure. That’s why I like that the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism, enlisted the help of food thinkers and designers to offer their best stabs at replacements for the Nutrition Facts panel that appears on every food package. The motivation behind the Rethink the Food Label contest: "to make it easier to read and more useful to people who want to consume healthier, more nutritious and wholesome food."

According to The New York Times, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will likely consider these ideas as part of the agency’s effort to revamp the existing food label.

Who better to judge the contest than a food writer (Michael Pollan), consumer health activist (Michael Jacobson), pediatrician (Robert Lustig, MD), graphic designer (Laura Brunow Miner) and design professor (Andrew Vande Moere)? Not rhetorical, the panel, albeit packed with knowledgeable folks, does seem to be missing key representation: a consumer, a nutritionist, a retailer, a manufacturer and perhaps an educator.

The winner, a San Francisco visual designer named Renee Walker, created labels that, according to her, “work as a system using color to indicate food groups, a mathematically proportionate representation of ingredients by order of listing, and calling out of important nutrition facts using color of ingredient to which it references.”

Nice effort! Still, the judges didn’t give Walker’s concept a complete endorsement—and neither did commenters on the news websites that featured the contest.

Criticisms ran the gamut. Some people questioned how objective a thumbs up and thumbs down icon would be—for example, the Weston A. Price Foundation calls whole milk healthy, whereas other nutrition experts recommend low-fat dairy. A commenter with food allergies wanted more details on ingredients. Another thought the design needed to distinguish between more-is-better items (fiber, protein) and more-is-worse items (sodium, trans fat). And despite missing many fine points in the eyes of several critics, the design was deemed “cluttered” by quite a few.

And that’s precisely why trying to accommodate individual needs and solve competing issues on such a small package is difficult. Perhaps the Fort Collins, Colo.-based reader has a point: “Am I the only one who, upon viewing the ‘busy’ designs with multiple colors, odd shapes and charts, came away with a renewed appreciation of the good ol’ black and white Nutrition Facts panel?”

Whether or not you like the Nutrition Facts panel any better after viewing the proposed revisions, you likely appreciate the challenge of coming up with a new-and-improved version. I do. And part of me wonders whether it’s worth the investment. After all, as one commenter puts it: “The healthiest foods are usually those without food labels.”


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