In 2006, The American Journal of Preventive Medicine issued a stunning report about nutrition label guidelines:
“In one of the most rigorous studies ever conducted to determine how well people comprehend the information provided on food nutrition labels, researchers have found that the reading and math skills of a significant number of people may not be sufficient to extract the needed information.”
In a country where obesity is so common – there are more obese adults in the US than those who are merely overweight – this report was a wakeup call for how we label our food. Unfortunately, in 2006 human factors wasn’t necessarily center stage when it came to how this information was presented to the public and understanding how people used or didn’t use these labels.
The FDA has since stepped in, but it took them over ten years to announce a new Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods. In 2016, they ruled that this new label would reflect what science has long suspected: there’s a link between diet and chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and even certain cancers. If you’re out grocery shopping, you may already be seeing the new labels. The compliance dates for the Nutrition Facts label have been extended from July 26, 2018 to January 1, 2020 for manufacturers who make $10 million or more in food sales annually, while manufacturers with less than $10 million per year in food sales have until January 1, 2021 to comply.
Here at Sophic Synergistics, noticing both good and bad design and user experience outcomes is our job. We have to say that even though it took a very long time, the FDA did make some positive changes to food labels. They are more user-friendly with a focus on human centered methodologies. These new labels, the FDA says, will help people to choose foods more wisely. But our question is: Will they really?
If we assume that misunderstanding the food labels is the problem, then yes. Fixing the label design will help the people who didn’t understand them. It will help the people who want or already do read food labels with more success. But, again, common sense tells us that there’s a lot more going on here. After all, how many times have you grabbed unhealthy food just because you were in a hurry or because you didn’t have access to healthy food? How many times did you eat double or triple the serving size of your favorite food because you couldn’t seem to stop eating? How many times did you not really care at all if your eating habits were terrible? In these cases, the solution goes way beyond food labels. Behavioral changes are needed to fix problems like these. But this is a very tricky subject with many variables to consider. There is simply no one-size fits-all solution. Just because healthy foods are available, doesn’t mean that people will choose them. And just because food labels tell us what we should be eating, doesn’t mean we’ll follow them.
Healthier eating may start with food labels, but it certainly doesn’t end there.
Sure, the new Nutrition Facts label will help some people who are already pre-dispositioned to read them and are focused on specific personal health goals. One of biggest issues we saw with the old nutrition labels was that people tended to look at the calories, fat or sodium in the product first. And why wouldn’t we? We’ve become a society that’s bombarded with advertisements enticing us with “low calorie”, “low fat” and “low sodium” foods. But many of us don’t stop to think that even if something is only 100 calories, if we eat 5 servings of it, it’s not low calorie anymore! That’s just our human nature. The design of the new labels takes this into account. On the new Nutrition Facts label “Serving size” is presented in bold lettering and stands out prominently at the top of the label. This redesign makes the serving size the focal point – as it should be.
But there are still many issues with the size of our servings. US law states that serving sizes need to be based on the amount that people are eating and drinking – not the amount that they should be eating and drinking. When the old sizing requirements came out, the year was 1993. Back then, the reference amount used to set one serving of soda was 8 ounces. Now it is changing to 12 ounces. We have to ask why. It seems that manufacturers are still setting the serving sizes. Whether we’re talking about soda or even cereal, the numbers lie. There really is no “healthy” amount to consume when it comes to sugary foods or drinks, and food labels may mislead us to think there is. For example, recent studies have shown that just one sugary soda per day can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions. The same can be said for sugary cereals. Even worse, most people don’t measure out their food when it comes in a free dispense package such as cereal. Further, they most certainly don’t measure out their soda either. The issue, again, comes down to behavior and how we eat.
We do give kudos to the FDA for changing the type size for “Calories” to a bolder and larger font to attract attention. “Added sugars,” both in grams and as “percent Daily Value”, are also being included on the new label. This was missing from the old label, and the addition reflects new scientific research. The FDA points out that in 2018, we know that you can’t meet your nutrient needs while staying within your total daily calories if you consume over 10 percent of the calories from added sugar. This is great information; however, they are still assuming that consumers care if they are making a good or bad food choice.
Human centered design means building a deep empathy with the people you are designing for and truly understanding them.
Our point is that until we can understand the different reasons people choose to eat unhealthy and design a variety of user-friendly solutions that work, we will never be able to fix our obesity epidemic. Good nutrition means everything. Not only can eating right help prevent certain diseases, but it can make us feel great. By putting people, their behaviors and their experiences at the center of the design process, we can get many more people on board with this mindset.
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