We at Be Food Smart, are constantly telling and teaching people to read the nutrition facts and ingredient lists. It is, by all accounts, the only way to know what’s in packaged food.  Many argue, however, that the current labeling system is confusing and doesn’t allow Americans to quickly tell if the food they are about to buy or consume is good for them.  Ingredient lists are a pain too. Have you ever noticed the the smallest possible font size is used in combination with leaving Caps Locks on? This is not by accident. They’d rather you not read the 45 ingredients on that box of crackers. The good news is that the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is in the process of updating the required nutritional facts. It will be interesting to see how consumer friendly the new labels turns out. Yes, I am a bit cynical when it comes to the FDA siding with the consumer and not the food industry.

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon the Rethink the Food Label project which is put on by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s News21 program and Good Magazine. Here is how they describe the project:

We asked the public, food thinkers, nutritionists, and designers to redesign the Nutrition Facts Label to make it easier to read and more useful to people who want to consume healthier, more nutritious and wholesome food. Designs could incorporate the nutrition label’s existing break down of fats, sugars, vitamins, calorie counts and percent daily values. Or, they could re-imagine the label to include geography, food quality, food justice, carbon footprint, or lesser-known chemosensory characteristics. Above all, we asked for designs that were informative, instructive and memorable.

Their objective is simple, “Inspire better food and nutrition literacy with clear, simple, easy-to-understand labels.” I’ve visited the site often and it is amazing to see all the creative labels people came up with. Many included geographical origin, food miles, “eco footprint” and other fun-to-know facts. While those would certainly be a nice, we are a long way off from ever seeing that information on a mandatory food label. As with any major change, we know the food industry is going to furiously push back.

I, myself, have a wish list of changes I’d like to see made to the nutrition facts and ingredient labels. Here are three of my wishes:

  1. GMO Labeling - I want to know if the food I’m consuming was made from genetically modified planta or from an animal which consumed GMO feed. This is a decision that consumers should be able to make for themselves.
  2. Ingredient Weight – Wouldn’t it be nice to know what percentage of that oatmeal cookie is actually oatmeal vs. corn syrup? A simple solution would be to place the percentage of each ingredient on the ingredient list. We know the food manufactures have this info at their fingertips since it’s essentially their recipe (which is why we know they’ll fight this one!).
  3. Added Sugar – Separate naturally occurring sugars and added sugars. For example, dairy products contain a high amount of natural sugar, but currently, it is impossible to know how much is naturally occurring and how much sugar is added. (I actually see this one on the 2nd place finisher!).

There are so many other things I’d love to see,  but we have to start somewhere. This is where the uber-creative Rethink the Food Label project comes in. It allows us to dream, get creative, and inspire people to care about mundane things like nutrition labels. The contest ran from May- July, 2011. An impressive list of judges, including, Michael Pollan, selected the winners last week. Check out the top designs and make sure to scroll through all the other creative entries.

Visit Rethink the Food Label to check out the project.

Image: jasonlam via Flickr