Sunday, October 14, 2012

How to Present Complex Data to Consumers: The Food Label

From The New York Times [1]
In today’s New York Times, Mark Bittman proposed a new food label. [1] Bittman stated that the current food label is information overload. As a consumer Bittman said, “I want something that allows me to make a fast but enlightened choice.”

Bittman’s simpler food label would reduce confusion among consumers. The various components that Bittman proposed are outstanding:
  • Summarizing a great deal of data into a few categories. They are “Nutrition”, “Foodness”, and “Welfare”.
  • Rating bar
  • Color code
  • Highlight topic of special concern such as “GMO”

As a change management and metrics expert, I have a few tweaks to Bittman’s “dream food label”.

1. Stick to Standard Scoring Techniques

For each category, Bittman proposes a score of 1 to 5. Since there are 3 categories proposed, the total score is between 3 and 15.

The total should add to 10. Everyone is familiar with that scoring system since it is consistent with our base 10 numbering system that started with our 5 fingers on each hand. A total score of 15 is too hard to conceptualize.

2. Eliminate overlap

"Nutrition" is a category that summarizes the “nutritional facts” listed on the current food label. “Foodness” is a new concept that measures how closely the product is to food found in its natural state. 

To see how “foodness” may be applied to food products, consider an apple

  • 5 points - An apple  
  • 4 points - Dried apple, apple juice no other additives
  • 3 points - Applesauce with some sugars and additives
  • 2 points - An apple drink with some apple juice
  • 1 point   - An apple-flavored drink with no apple juice
It seems that "nutrition" and "foodness" have a great deal of overlap. A poor "foodness" score indicates poor "nutrition". In the examples Bittman provided, the scores were identical or 20% different. e.g., tomato sauce is a 5 for "nutrition" but scored 4 on "foodnesss". I can't think of an example where "nutrition" would be "5" and “foodness” would be a "1", so I recommend eliminating since not that much extra information is provided.

The concept of "foodness" is still important. So perhaps the two scores could be combined. Using this approach, tomato sauce earns a 4.5. And a new category name that captures "nutrition" and "foodness" could be devised. 

3. Be careful when presenting hot topics such as "welfare"

The "welfare" score is also a new concept. Bittman described welfare as "a measure of the impact of the food's production on the overall welfare of everything involved: laborers, animals, land, water, air, etc."

"Welfare" --- as Frank Luntz would say --- is "a word that does not work". [2] Unfortunately "welfare" is linked to social welfare programs and using that word will trigger already strong associations. For many, those associations are negative.

Bittman proposed adding the individual scores together to compute a grand total. Usually a total score would be simpler, but food is a highly charged topic. Not everyone yet agrees that "welfare" is important to measure. Since "welfare" still requires more public acceptance it should be kept separate.  Per my recommendation of presenting only two metrics, people can add them together if both metrics are personally meaningful.

4. No acronyms please

“GMO” stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Bittman referenced a study where 90% of Americans who were surveyed wished to know if their food contains genetically modified organisms.

The study did not measure whether those 90% knew the acronym. But in general, it is unlikely and therefore dangerous to assume that everyone will know what an acronym stands for.  

My tweak for this section is to pose as a Question: Genetically modified? Answer: Yes GMOs or No GMOs.

I applaud Bittman for not making a value judgement on GMO. He used a neutral color code of black or white to indicate if a food contains GMO (black) or not (white). 

5. My Health / Our Health

"Nutrition / Foodness" could be named the "My Health" score. And "Welfare" could be categorized as "Our Health". These new labels capture both the personal and the community welfare.

Here is the updated dream label:

Tomato Sauce
Frozen Blueberries
Whole Chicken
Sugary Cereal
My Health
4.5 / 5
4.5 / 5
4 / 5
1 /5
Our Health
5 / 5
2 / 5
1 / 5
3 / 5

NO      GMOs

NO     GMOs



I offer these suggestions as a few more ideas to build upon. Thanks again to Mark Bittman for starting the conversation and providing an excellent foundation. 


1. Bittman's article "My Dream Food Label" at The New York Times >>
2. Frank Luntz is a Republican strategist whose research focuses on finding effective ways to communicate complex political topics. His bestseller is Words That Work. Learn more at Luntz's site >>

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