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I find it remarkable that the US FDA, after years of tweaking and no doubt lots of time and money invested, could only come up with a food label that is terribly confusing! The left side shows a typical food label, mixing good things (e.g. fiber) with bad things (e.g. cholesterol) and having no demarkation or other distinction between those that are good, bad, or neutral. The right side shows a decorated version (from the FDA's nutrition label page) that reveals the truth: the items in gold show be limited, the items in blue should be sought out (while the remaining white items are presumably neutral??).

Shouldn't they have grouped them more clearly with explicit headings, e.g. "Limit the following" and "Eat lots of these" ? What possible rationale could there be for this hodgepodge of nutritional entities?

nutrition label, as distributed (left) and colorized for clarity (right)

[I have included the physical tag because I take that to generally mean relating to non-software specific design even though technically a label is not a physical manifestation.]

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Interesting question. Relevant and interesting contestant's redesign of the nutrition facts label: adweek.com/adfreak/… –  GotDibbs May 21 '12 at 0:48
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@GotDibbs while that has some interesting ideas in it, it's also got some problems...assuming you eat the entire bag of potato chips, implying "added" makes sodium/fat/ect "worse", and the general excessive consideration of some things "bad" and "good". Great looking design that is misleading is even more harmful than ugly but practical design. –  Ben Brocka May 21 '12 at 0:56
    
@BenBrocka Oh I know it's got problems for sure, but remembered the redesign and wanted to share it for perspective nonetheless. –  GotDibbs May 21 '12 at 0:58
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This description of 'traffic light' systems illustates an 'at a glance' approach: nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/food-labelling.aspx#Tr –  PhillipW May 21 '12 at 18:45
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up vote 16 down vote accepted

While Fat, Cholesterol and Sodium have attained a social stigma and are regarded as "bad", they're not technically bad for you; for the most part you'll die if you don't intake all of those things.

If the labels actually attempted to pass judgement on which items are bad and good, people might actually attempt to get near 0% of the "bad" items and in excess of 100% of the "good" ones. In reality a healthy human should simply get around 100% of each of the enumerated items. Treating them like video game stats would be harmful and misleading.

Training people to wholesale avoid things that keep them alive would obviously be inadvisable. The reason I consider this a UX question is because of the psychological impact these labels can have; you can have a very serious harmful effect if you inappropriately classify things as being "bad for you".

Just because people in certain nations tend to stray more to the side of too much fat/calories/salt doesn't mean excessive intake of those nutrients is more harmful than any other (too much iron is quite bad as well). Rather the relevant point for nutrition is moderation, hence the neutral tone of the dietary information. You're not supposed to get 0% of good and 100% of bad, just around 100% of everything (unless a doctor advises otherwise).

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No argument that they are all necessary, though I submit that one does not have to try to eat enough fat, cholesterol and sodium--they are so pervasive that my goal is to minimize them as much as possible, knowing that I will still have a surfeit of each. Contrariwise, fiber is something I always strive to get more of, knowing that my dietary habits are inadequate (but improving!). –  Michael Sorens May 21 '12 at 1:39
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Introducing value judgements into the design not only can affect the behaviour of consumers of the information, it will thus also likely affect the behaviour of the designers of the information. The nutrition facts are now, for the most part, expressed as neutral facts. You probably don't want to open the door for marketing shenanigans here. –  Erics May 21 '12 at 4:01
    
@Erics I hadn't considered marketing shenanigans either, but that'd be an even greater risk than currently. Stuff like "no salt added" or "low fat" are often used to hide bad things like high (natural) levels of salt or high calories –  Ben Brocka May 21 '12 at 15:33
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Studies conflict each other over time about how "good" or "bad" something is. The government's not there to tell you which you should do; it tells you how you can choose. The FDA labeling provides transparency. –  tajmo May 22 '12 at 20:00
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@tajmo. You're wrong. Studies don't contradict each other all the time. Basic scientific advice on healthy eating hasn't changed in decades. Sometimes newspapers make things up, that's all. (Often, they'll report studies on cell lines as if it is actually directly meaningful to real live humans. That's why the Daily Mail will tell you that coffee both causes and cures cancer.) –  TRiG Jul 20 '12 at 1:47
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