Obesity and type 2 diabetes have become major health concerns for the United States, and promise to be a burden on the health care system for years to come. Especially concerning are the rates of childhood obesity, as obese children are more likely to suffer from a great number of associated illnesses as adults. Despite the recent interpretations of the New York Times and other major news outlets that childhood obesity rates have dropped by 43%, a much-reported on study actually found that overall rates were unchanged; the drop in 43% was reported only for one cohort in the study, and was attributed by the authors to natural variation in cohort groupings rather than a statistically significant drop. In short, the rate of childhood obesity does not seem to be improving.
So what are we, as a country, to do about it? The First Lady Michelle Obama has become the face of the fight against childhood obesity, and her Let’s Move campaign recently backed several initiatives aimed at reducing rates of obesity in America. Chief among these is the proposal to reformat the FDA mandated Nutrition Labels to be more clear and in line with what people are actually eating.
The new labels would use a larger font for the calorie count, left-align the percent of daily recommended value numbers, separate “added sugars” from naturally occurring sugars, and redefine standard serving sizes to more accurately reflect what people tend to eat in a single sitting.
As a health-conscious type 1 diabetic, these changes are unlikely to affect how I buy and consume food; I’ve been reading and computing nutrition labels for years. However, I’m not the intended audience here. The more pertinent question is: will these changes affect how individuals who currently either don’t pay attention to nutrition labels or don’t interpret nutrition labels correctly consume food?
I think the changes are positive; highlighting total calories in particular is beneficial insofar as it reinforces the fact that calories on the whole translate to weight gain, not just calories from fat. Updating serving sizes will certainly help people more easily determine how much they are eating (though I admit cringing at the fact that serving sizes are bureaucratically set in stone, rather than being based on an easily updated formula of some sort).
However, at the end of the day, the proposed changes do very little to alter the overall look or usefulness of the nutrition label. Crucially, the changes don’t address the fundamental problem with the current nutrition labels: people don’t think in numbers when they think about food. Unless you are trained to calculate everything, you are unlikely to internalize whether your swig of soda is 50 calories or 100, and therefore having a larger font size for that number won’t alter your behavior.
What could be done to actually make nutrition labels more user-friendly? Let me read them without having to crunch any numbers. Practically speaking, it is unreasonable to convey all the details of the nutrition label without any numbers, of course. But for most people, the precise number of calories or grams of sugar doesn’t actually matter—what matters is something closer to, “Is this a big, medium, or small amount of food?” I therefore propose color-coding the nutrition label; leave the numbers, of course, but assign a color to the label based on the total caloric content per serving size. The color can be selected from a spectrum from, say, 0 to 500, ranging from, say, blue to red, such that my hamburger would be red, my can of soda would be yellow, and my bag of lettuce would be blue.
Of course, such nation-wide regulations involving the well-funded food industry are easy in theory and Herculean in practice. Perhaps for the next round of updates, we will see nutrition labels that don’t rely so heavily on the reader’s love of calculation. In the meantime, the incremental improvements in the proposed labels are better than no improvements at all.
The current nutrition labels (left) and the proposed improvements (right) (from FDA web site).
Color-coding a nutrition label could give a general idea of caloric content without requiring readers to think in numbers.