April 25

Burkey Belser is the president and co-founder of Greenfield Belser, a brand-strategy and design firm. He designed the FDA’s Nutrition Facts label in 1992.

There is very good reason to support Michelle Obama’s push to revise the Nutrition Facts label. If nothing else, a successful redesign would support the first lady’s effort to reduce obesity in the United States. But it’s worth examining whether the label itself can help fight the epidemic, as research shows that about one-third of Americans regularly rely on it when buying food.

The original label, which I designed in collaboration with the Food and Drug Administration more than 20 years ago, was born out of concern about obesity. Before that, the label was not really a label at all. Its Nutritional Information Per Serving, an undistinguished hard-to-find collation, was created when memories of the Great Depression were still with us. In the 1930s, hunger was bad enough but the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables led to vitamin-related diseases such as rickets and scurvy.

Almost overnight, the American diet changed from one of scarcity to one of abundance. Food manufacturers responded by fortifying products with the long list of vitamins and minerals you still see on cereal boxes. To give these vitamin-packed foods appeal, Corn Flakes became “Sugar Frosted Flakes.” As the processed-food industry grew, meats were more broadly distributed. Refrigerated trucks were already on the roads, but the real problem was the roads themselves — they were tortuously narrow, slow and disconnected. With the building of the interstate highway system, suddenly fresh foods from California and Florida hit grocery store shelves still plump and gleaming. The gaunt figures in Dorothea Lange portraits became the roly-poly figures in today’s news photographs deploring or, more to the point, gawking at obesity.

Enter Nutrition Facts. I was tasked with designing a food label for the FDA that would capture the detail that the transformed marketplace required. Four thousand pages of regulations had to be reduced to a few square inches, flexible enough to appear on a candy bar wrapper or a cereal box — and on wax paper and cellophane, which tend to blur small print. The label had to be digestible for Americans with low literacy, for non-native English speakers and older Americans with failing eyesight.

Notes on the original label — and the FDA’s proposed changes.

The food label assumes that all readers are familiar with the metric system, and that they understand nutrients and their relative value. For example, what’s the difference between fat, trans fat and saturated fat? Why are complex carbohydrates and sugars subsets of carbohydrates and, most important, why should the public care?

The label also assumes that all consumers understand percentages and daily values, what their usual caloric intake is and should be, and how to convert the information on the label to their needs.

The label’s information was so complex that, while designing it, we resorted to sliders, pie charts and asterisked notations to organize the information for the consumer. At one point, we tried to separate nutrients into “good” and “bad” (as one of the FDA’s proposed new labels essentially does) until the scientists convinced us it was not so simple. You can’t always neatly distinguish healthful from unhealthful. If dietary fiber and sugar are carbohydrates, are both bad or both good? Actually, scientists objected to the use of boldfaced type because, as soon as one nutrient was highlighted over another, we weren’t conveying scientific information but veering into public policy.

The original label was a tightrope walk between science and policy. The successful introduction of Nutrition Facts depended on broad acceptance, not just by consumers, but by industry and public-interest groups as well.

Using color was not an option because it could be costly for manufacturers. Colors also have different meanings around the world: Chinese brides wear red, while most Americans slam on the brakes when they see it. Only black and white steered relatively clear of such cultural differences.

Today, the White House is working with the FDA to redesign the original label to influence behavior. But I believe these changes will hinder comprehension of an already complex label.

The FDA did call me about the redesign project, but I was out of the country. When I returned, I submitted designs close to the one shown here; my concerns were not addressed in the FDA’s new version. The fine points of design that I’ve noted at right are not simply aesthetic, nor do they reflect any pride of ownership on the part of the guy who designed the label that’s being supplanted. To the contrary, these details affect consumer comprehension and, ultimately, their personal well-being: If they can’t understand the label, it won’t help them make healthier choices.

Such radical changes as the ones proposed are not required to achieve the FDA’s goals and would force consumers to relearn the label. Change is necessary, but let’s make sure it’s done in the best possible way.

burkeyb@gbltd.com

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