A New Nutrition Label: What Does It Take?

How can consumers best be informed about the food they eat.
Image from Rethink the Food Label
Jul 29, 2011
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

When the nutrition label we know today was first introduced to the public in 1993, it was accompanied by more than 700 pages of research to support its design. At the time, the Food and Drug Administration was under the gun to come up with something suitable; Congress was waiting. Lacking clarity, the FDA "chose the design that was least poorly understood," explains nutrion expert Marion Nestle.

Recently, a group of students at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism set its sites higher, aiming to come up with a design that is not relatively good, but actually good.

The group's project, Rethink the Food Label, called on designers, food experts, nutritionists, and the public to submit ideas for a better design. The goal: to inspire better food and nutrition literacy. Open to ideas that incorporated the nutrition label’s existing design, the group also welcomed contestants to "re-imagine the label to include geography, food quality, food justice, carbon footprint, or lesser-known chemosensory characteristics."

It was no easy challenge. One of the panel's judges, author, journalist and food expert Michael Pollan, explains: "The focus on nutrients is probably inevitable but it distracts from the issue, whether you’re getting real food or not." Manufacturers can "game the system," he says, by "adding irrelevant inert materials to food" making it hard to know the best way to label our food. Often, he says, the degree of processing a food has undergone is a more important factor than its nutrients, but he begs the question, "So how do we capture that?"

A slew of big thinkers answered the call.

After pouring over the entries, the esteemed panel of judges—comprised of both food experts and design afficionados—finally selected three winners (pictured above). The fourth they left open to a vote from the public.

Though the contest was not part of the official effort to redesign the nutrition label, the project has garnered nationwide attention and its winners could likely be considered by the FDA. If nothing else, it highlighted how complex the issue is, from what should be included to how it should be conveyed.

What do you think should be on a food label? Visit Rethink the Food Label to check out other great ideas that didn't make the cut, then share your thoughts below.

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