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Infographic Of The Day: A Food Label That Actually Teaches You About Food

UC Berkeley and Good magazine announce the winners of the Rethink the Food Label competition.

The design concept above, by San Francisco-based Renee Walker, recently won Rethink the Food Label, a competition that asked designers to make the health info on packaged goods easier to understand. Mounted by the UC Berkeley j-school's News21 program and Good magazine — with powerhouse jurors, including "liberal foodie intellectual" Michael Pollan and anti-sugar crusader Robert Lustig — the contest isn't part of any official push to revamp packaging but could serve up a heaping of inspiration to the FDA, which is in the process of revising the national nutrition label. "[T]he Berkeley project has generated dozens of new ideas that are likely to be considered by the United States Food and Drug Administration," the New York Times reported last week.

Today's food labels don't reveal the quantity of each ingredient.

One of the big shortcomings of the existing food label is that, while it lists ingredients, it doesn't give you any sense of the quantity of each ingredient. A box of mac and cheese could boast that it's "made with real cheese!" but for all you know that means 1% is real cheese and the rest is CheezWhiz. Walker proposes using color-coded boxes to show the relative proportions of a product's top ingredients. An apple, for instance, would just be a big red box that says 'apple.' A box of mac and cheese, on the other hand, would show a large brown box to denote its primary ingredient "wheat flour," then smaller boxes in different colors to highlight less prominent ingredients, like cheese, milk fat, and additives.

Another flaw in the current label: It doesn't have any shorthand for designating whether food is healthy or not; all you see are percentages, which are guaranteed to make the eyes of the mathematically incompetent among us glaze over. Walker's solution: attach a handy-dandy thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the percentages, when relevant. For instance, the low carbs, high fiber, and plentiful vitamin C in our aforementioned apple each get a thumbs-up. The high calories and sodium in our mac and cheese each get a thumbs-down.

The jurors are quick to point out that the winning label and the contributions of other finalists — which you can see here — aren't the last word on food packaging. Pollan doubts whether Walker's color-coded boxes would work with complicated products, like Lucky Charms or PowerBars, and juror Laura Brunow Miner worries that they're too big to fit on small packaging. But the point of the contest wasn't to concoct the perfect label. It was to show that, with a little creativity, the existing model can be vastly improved upon to help consumers make smarter, healthier decisions. "[I]t's a step in the right direction," Pollan says of Walker's design. "What I'd like to see next is some sort of color coding for the food groups and some attempt to show the degree of processing of various foods. Eating doesn't have to be complicated; figuring out what's in your food shouldn't be either."

For more Co.Design coverage of food-label design, go here.

[Images courtesy of Rethink the Food Label]

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  • Harris Loeser

    This is not my idea:

    Add QRCodes and Smartphones and the customer has a cooking companions in the shopping aisleGreat example of how retail marketers could be marketing to smartphones of their buying customers. Brick and Mortar retailers will survive if they leverage their advantages of place, immediacy and pleasure-of-shopping to get onto customers' smartphones, which are rapidly becoming part of the shopping personnae. See my comments on Siri and QRCodes at Google Groups: Retail Marketing Management

  • iamwpj

    Is any food just plain good, or just plain bad? I drink 1000% of my DV of vitamin B in my Rockstar, that doesn't mean that vitamin B is bad for me. The thumbs up/down idea gets a major thumbs down from me. 

  • fire honey

    one problem- people have different views on what is good and not good.  I am a huge fan of the weston price foundation, that is all about WHOLE FAT, WHOLE PROTEIN, FRESH OILS, ETC.. very very PRO FAT- but only the right kind- mostly animal fat.  i look for whole fat, and wholesome carbs in ingredients.  I dont want to see a thumbs down if something is full of health-giving whole milk or whole dairy products.  i consider that a thumbs up.  who is the one to decide whats thumbs up and thumbs down?  I can't stand this calorie-counting-high-cholesterol-fearing-everything-must-be-low-fat-low-carb modern diet mentality.  i dont want new food labels reflecting that mentality.  Thanks for reading

  • ali reid

    @scotty: totally agree.  missing a trick if they don't connect this to an online database with detailed information. 
    The above solutions with thumbs up and thumbs down icons sounds politically difficult.  don't people disagree about ideal quantities of food? And of course, its all about the range of things you eat. 
    The colour-coding is cute.  but colour shouldn't be used alone, since colour-blindness is so common.

  • scotty

    I love the visual this gives. This could be an excellent mobile app idea with barcodes (ie: QR Codes) on the products or shelf labels so consumers could find more info if they wanted it... think of the amount of info this could link to as well- FDA articles, news articles etc about the ingredients. We could then take it even further and list where the ingredients came from and the cost of transport/production. This much transparency in our food supply though? Won't happen.

  • Matthew Scharpnick

    This is great.  I think Pollan's comments could be an issue, but at the very least seeing all those complicated small squares would make you wonder, "is this food?"

  • Ruth Sami

    I think these are great. I would also love to see labels on food that tell you something like, this food typically is famous for its Potassium, magnesium and calcium content eg something that tells you the foods mineral nutritional value. I appreciate for instance that raisin content depends on the soil it was grown in etc etc but most food is more than a %