nutrition facts

Food Labels

We have a tough tradeoff when designing food labels. Please note that I am not talking about marketing copy or cooking instructions here – just the information regarding contents, safety, and health. On one hand, we would like to give consumers all the information that they want and/or need to make informed choices.

  • We need to tell them about ingredients that could affect their health, such as added sugar or trans fats.
  • We need to tell them about ingredients that affect the safety of a subcategory of users, such as allergens like peanuts or wheat.
  • We need to tell them about ingredients where there are non-health attributes that are important to large subpopulations, such as Kosher, vegan, or made in the USA.
  • We would like to tell them about nutrients that they care about but are not critical, such as vitamin content.
  • We would like to tell them about attributes that they care about in general, such as GMO content, organic, or locally grown.

But there is only so much room on the label. Even when there is room, we know that consumers are not particularly good at integrating large amounts of information. Rather than risk being confused or overwhelmed, they often just ignore the whole thing and pick whatever their basic emotions prefer – to their own long term detriment. There have been some great discussions of this problem on NPR and Scientific American

Alex Jessee, a young mother, went through the “GMO Experience,” one of the four exhibits. She says she learned from it “that these GMOs could be harmful to us, the environment, but they don’t necessarily have to tell us that we’re eating them. Which isn’t very cool.”

My Take

So we need to be very careful to provide the minimum necessary information on the label. This is not as hard as it used to be with the prevalence of smart phones. We can quite easily give consumers an app with which they can snap a photo of the product or the UPC code and get a full list of attributes that didn’t fit on the label (ethicist Art Caplan mentioned this idea on Boston Public Radio recently).

The app could be customized to give the consumers only what they care about – lacto-ovo vegetarians can customize it according to their exact specifications. The most important attributes that are relevant to all consumers can go on the physical label so that everyone will see them with no extra effort. The rest goes into the app for consumers who are vegetarian, have allergies, or whatever. This balances access to information with the reality of information overload and choice paralysis.

But here is where the tough decision comes in. What are the important attributes that get onto the physical label? Who decides what is most important?

The current debate about GMO labeling is a great example:

  • There is currently no scientific evidence that GMO foods create any health risks to consumers. This suggests that it could be taken off the label and put into the app.
  • There are lots of people who want to know if a food is GMO. This suggests that it should be on the label.
  • There is evidence that when you put information on the label, consumers assume that there is scientific evidence of harm, so they would be misled. This suggests that it should be removed from the label and put into the app.
  • There have not been enough independent, long term, clinical trials to know for sure if GMO foods are really safe. This suggests it should be on the label, just in case.
  • The FDA relies on consumers to report unknown effects that they experience as a form of long term post-approval surveillance. Consumers can’t do this if they don’t know it is GMO. This suggests it should be on the label.
  • Consumers are unaware that GMO foods often allow the use of less pesticide or less toxic pesticides and herbicides, making them safer than organic foods, which can rely on more toxic pesticides and herbicides that happen to be organic as well as toxic. This suggests that it should be taken off the label and put into the app.

    If you believe in the precautionary principle and that we should be protected against any potentially disastrous risk, no matter how small, then only the fourth bullet matters. The public radio discussion focuses more on bullets one and two. There is no dispositive evidence that GMO products are risky or that organic products are healthier or safer. In fact, GMO products often have significant health advantages over the equivalent organic product. They also found that the consumer who prefers non-GMO is also the person who prefers organic. Not because of proof but because of psychological essentialism and the halo effect. So one label that encapsulates all of these might be a great balance between label space and purpose. So much to think about.

    Your Turn

    This is a fundamental human factors issue. How do we decide what is important enough to take up the valuable space on the product label, trading off the reality that consumers might misinterpret the information, be confused by it, or be overwhelmed by the amount of information. The complexity of this context requires a comprehensive consideration of the user – information processing, emotional processing, behavioral design, persuasive design, and so on.

    • How would you resolve the challenge?
    • Do you like the app idea?
    • What kinds of information would you prioritize for the label?

    Image Credit: Kayaker

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