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Are We Designing Nutrition Labels All Wrong?

One recent study says yes—and offers a better way forward.

Nutrition labels have the best of intentions—to keep us healthy—but they sure don't have the clearest of formats. Four in 10 North Americans admit to no better than a "partial" understanding of them, according to a recent Nielsen survey. Serving sizes, percentages, grams, daily values—parsing out what it all means requires more math, time, and vitamin analysis than most of us care to apply on an empty stomach in a crowded aisle.

With all due respect to riboflavin, there may be a better way. Psychologists Peter Helfer and Thomas Shultz of McGill University in Montreal recently found that the standard U.S. food package label measurably inferior to several alternatives when it came to conveying nutrition information in a timely and effective manner. In a recent issue of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, they argue that a simple one-number label called NuVal might be a better way to go.

"We find that the Nutrition Facts label, currently required in the United States, Canada, and a few other countries, is relatively ineffective in guiding participants toward nutritious choices, whereas some alternative schemes that present nutrition information in a more condensed form perform significantly better," write the authors.

For the study, Helfer and Shultz compared four different nutrition labeling schemes (below). One was the standard "Nutrition Facts" label we know so well, which shows how much of a particular nutrient can be found in a serving of food. The others included a "Traffic Light" label, which gives red, yellow, or green indicators on several nutrition metrics; a simple 1-to-100 nutrition score called a NuVal label; and a Heart label, present on healthy food packages but missing on others.

From left to right, Nutrition Facts, Traffic Light, NuVal, and Heart labels.Via Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences

The label experiment was conducted online with 192 test participants in the United States and Canada. Participants saw a screen with four food items (cereal or yogurt), each accompanied by one of the nutrition label designs, as well as a taste score. After considering the information—some had 20 seconds per screen, others unlimited time—participants indicated which item they were most likely to buy. They repeated the task through 10 different food item scenarios.

Screenshot via archived experiment page

When Helfer and Shultz tallied the results, they found the NuVal design to be the "most usable labeling scheme" on both time and nutrition impact: participants who saw it made the quickest and healthiest choices. Traffic Light labels took more time to process and also yielded significantly lower nutrition choices. Heart labels were fastest to use—though no quicker than NuVal, statistically speaking—but produced nutrition choices significantly lower than both NuVal or Traffic styles.

And then there was the standard Nutrition Facts labels. Not only did these take the most time for participants to consider, but they also led to the least nutritious choices. These findings held true across all the survey variations, including when participants had unlimited time to make a decision.

NuVal led to significantly higher nutrition choices (top) but also required little time to process (bottom)via Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences

The researchers were "somewhat" surprised to find that imposing the time limit on food decisions didn't make much difference in the outcome. On average, participants facing the 20-second clock made their choice in about 8 seconds. But those who took the untimed survey only needed about 14 seconds to pick an item. Together these data get to the core of the real-life shopping experience: sure, we'd like to make a healthy choice, but we also want to make a fast one and get on with our day.

Hence the NuVal advantage. Compared to NuVal, the other three labels create what Helfer and Shultz call "decisional conflicts" that require too much time and thought. The complicated Nutrition Facts matrix, and to a lesser extent the Traffic Light label, require people to weigh a good many variables: go with an item high in salt and low in sugar, for instance, or choose one high in both and low fat? On the other hand, the Heart label creates a decision conflict by not providing enough information.

"In contrast," conclude the researchers, "a single-attribute scheme like NuVal resolves such nutrition conflicts, rather than highlighting them, thus providing more guidance for decision making."

Nutrition isn't the only factor in a grocery aisle. Price obviously matters, as does taste, shelf placement, and brand attachment. (The researchers indeed found evidence of "consumer inertia": test participants who saw actual brands, instead of generic food items, made less nutritious choices, no doubt from habit.) And Helfer and Shultz stop short of endorsing NuVal as the end-all, be-all nutrition label; all their test shows is that it was the best of this bunch.

But the larger point remains true: better label design could make life easier for consumers conscious of both their health and their time. It's not you, riboflavin. It's us.