Take The Puzzle Out Of Food Labels


nutrition label

I’ve spent who knows how much time reading those little boxes on the sides of cereal cartons and food packages, you know, the “Nutrition Facts.” It’s not that they are incredibly interesting or anything, but I feel like it’s kind of like a puzzle: So, wait, how big is a serving size? One half cup? And I probably have three times that amount in my bowl right now, so that’s how many calories . . . ?

Not that figuring out how many calories means anything to me. Or what percent of my daily value of riboflavin is contained in each serving. Because what is riboflavin? And so what if the recommended number of calories is 2000 for the average adult? I don’t consider myself to be average.

The nutrition facts boxes are notoriously hard to decipher. I remember one mother reading that the ice cream bar her son was eating had “25% saturated fat.” She was dumbstruck that 1/4 of what he was eating was fat. I wonder if she would have felt the same way if she’d realized that it actually contained 25% of the daily value of saturated fat for someone on a 2000 calorie diet. See what I mean? Just a little confusing.

There are surely better ways to do things. A study published earlier this year showed that even small changes in font size and wording would help people make better decisions about what they eat. But is adding italics or changing the spacing going to make nutrition labels more relevant? There are many other ideas out there: giving a starred rating on the front of the package, taking into account the “foodness” of a food and its effect on the environment in addition to its nutritional value, using graphs and charts, or equating calories with walking-time to burn it off are a few of them.

I appreciate the more concrete, immediate labels: ones that tell me at a glance if it’s really food I’m eating, like Mark Bittman’s label, or how far I should be able to run on this sandwich.

What nutrition information would you like to see on the side of your cereal box? How would better food labels help you make better choices?