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Rethinking the Food Label

In 2003, then Surgeon General, Richard H. Carmona reported that obesity had reached crisis levels. Carmona explained that obesity is ”the fastest-growing cause of disease and death in America. And it’s completely preventable.” In response to this crisis, Michelle Obama has been publicly advocating increased physical activity and improved diet. In 2010, the first lady introduced her “Let’s Move” campaign to battle childhood obesity.

As part of this campaign, the FDA is in the process of designing an easily digestible food label to display on the front of all processed-food packaging. The problem is that the nutritional label misses out on crucial information needed to make informed and healthful decisions, and, perhaps what’s worse, the label is difficult to understand. Mrs. Obama believes a more informative and user friendly label will help parents make better decisions for themselves and their children. While the FDA continues its research, the food and beverage industry has taken its own shot at a new design, but the gambit has been criticized as an attempt by the industry to preempt federal regulation.

In order to bring the debate to the public, the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s News 21 project in coordination with GOOD launched the Rethink the Food Label contest in May. The contest accepted redesigned nutrition labels. In addition to re-imagining the display of traditional nutrition content, some entrants chose to add depictions of a food’s processed content, an aspect that the industry redesign does not not take into account. According to Michael Pollan, “the degree of processing matters more, very often, than the nutrients as expressed in a label.” An improved label may also include information relevant to particular dietary restrictions like blood glucose ramifications for diabetics. Other entrants chose to take environmental impact into consideration. The design below, for example, includes information on ingredient origin and certification by various standards setting organizations like the Fairtrade Foundation and Carbonfund.org.

The entries will be judged by a panel of leading food and design thinkers including Michael Pollan, all-around foodie icon and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Laura Brunow Miner, founder of Pictory and Eat Retreat; Robert H. Lustig, M.D., Professor of Clinical Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco; and Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The judges will select three entries and a fourth entry will be selected by social media votes. Winners will be announced Monday, July 25th.

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Alicia Mazzara

This is super cool, thanks for sharing! I think the bottom line is that few of us have a very sophisticated understanding of nutrition, and companies like to do all sorts of things to make their products look healthier than they are. For instance, orange growers don’t put stickers on their fruit saying it has vitamin C, but sugary cereal has all sorts of health claims, etc. It’d be great to have something that cut through all the noise.