The Power of Info-graphics | January 4, 2007

There has been an interesting story circulating in the press today about food labelling. The government are trying to encourage food manufacturers to label food in such a way that shoppers can clearly tell which of a number of similar products are healthiest just by glancing at them.

The food standards agency realised that the current labelling system—while very good by international standards—is still quite complicated. If you want choose between two products for health reasons, you need to spend a considerable amount to time looking at the two labels, and even then it is difficult to tell which is better unless you know exactly how much salt, fat or sugar you are supposed to eat each day

Old style, information heavy food label

Two rival labelling systems have emerged. One system is called the traffic light system and studies have shown that it provides shoppers with a clear indication of which product is the least healthy. It works though a colour coding system, so green is healthy, amber is medium and red is unhealthy. Four main metrics are communicated; the amount of fat, saturates, sugar and salt an item contains. So by quickly glancing at a product you can tell if it is “unhealthy” by the amount of red and orange displayed on the info-graphic.

Traffic light label on a bag of chips (fries)

Traffic light label on a pizza box

Traffic light label using the alternative pie chart format

The problem is, it turns out that when faced with the traffic light, shoppers naturally (and some would say instinctively) avoid the products containing a lot of red traffic lights. This has obviously upset many manufactures who prefer a less emotive system called the GDA system.

This system shows how much of an adults guideline daily amount (GDA) of calories, sugar, fat, saturates and salt the product contains. The info-graphics the manufacturers prefer don’t include the traffic light system, making it much less emotive. They argue that the info-graphics provide more information to the shopper and leads to an informed decision.

The new GDA label

GDA label from a box of nestle cereal

Supporters of the traffic light system say that the GDA system is flawed because many people don’t have the time, ability or inclination to do mathematical calculations while shopping. This is an interesting argument from a usability, user-centered design and accessibility standpoint, and is actually supported through user testing. They argue that when you are in a hurry, the traffic light system gives the shopper the information they desire at a glance, and is therefore superior.

However supporters of the GDA system counter with the argument that some products like cheese, which are naturally high in fat and would therefore always have a red label, can still be eaten as part of a healthy diet as long as more than the GDA isn’t consumed.

I find it very interesting that a story about info-graphic design has been all over the TV and newspapers today. I also think it is very interesting how the two different camps are reacting to the two different types of info-graphic. To throw salt (sugar, fat and saturates) onto the wound, one option would be to combine both techniques. It would be very simple to add colour to the GDA info-graphic, but desaturate it slightly to make it less emotive. That way you would still be able to see which elements were high, medium or low at a glance while hopefully placating the manufacturers. I was planning to knock up an example but I’ve just got a new laptop and Adobe are forcing me to phone them up again to prove that I own my copy of Photoshop. This is starting to get tedious.

Posted at January 4, 2007 10:11 PM


Robert said on January 4, 2007 10:32 PM

Why not use geometric symbols? For example, a circle for low, a triangle for medium, and a square for high. Those symbols would by and large have a less emotional response, be easily identifiable, and possibly be more “accessible.”

Richard said on January 4, 2007 11:16 PM

Why not use hieroglyphics? That would surely get ‘em!

Christian Watson said on January 4, 2007 11:50 PM

The traffic light concept is my preference. So cheese is high in fat - I think people already know that and are not going to be put off by that fact.

Do cheese manufacturers honestly think that people will stop buying cheese (and other dairy products) when they see a red traffic light for the fat content?

And, if people don’t know that cheese has a lot of fat - well, perhaps they ought to and this would be a good way to help educate them.

illovich said on January 5, 2007 12:29 AM

The problem with both systems is that they offer no regulation for what may be considered a portion — which is crucial for making a good decision.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time examining food labels in various quests to eat healthier, and I’ve been amazed at what can be called a portion on a food label. Sometimes it’s a close call, but other times it’s an insult to the intelligence.

Unfortunately I can’t recall a specific label, but in my experience single bottles/cans of soda are sometimes labeled as being 2 servings, and I know I’ve seen candy bars that attempt to be counted as being multiple servings of candy.

I believe that there should be a regulation that requires a separate label that totals the values for an entire package of food if it could reasonably be eaten in a single serving (e.g. a 3 or 5-serving lasagna, but not a loaf of bread).

I realize that it’s a hard thing to define, but my first metric would be - if it’s a pre-packaged pre-prepared good, is it also pre-divided? My first yardstick would be: “If it’s one piece, it’s one serving.”

I realize this is harder with potato chips, etc. but they actually tend to be pretty good (if a little silly with serving sizes — I don’t know anyone who considers 6 potato chips a serving).

So I say, yes make the labels better (and don’t give me colors — I agree with the food companies, I’m a big boy and can keep track of how much fat & fiber I consume), but also make the portions more realistic so it’s easier to know if you’ve eaten a serving or three.

Andy Croll said on January 5, 2007 1:56 AM

Well it helps me choose between sandwiches at Sainsburys… often the traffic lights provide surprising results, and the colours are much more my preference for at a glance browsing for a ‘healthier’ option.

My favourite is the Sainsbury’s one although it would be nice to have the little extra info on the RDA as you suggest.

There is the issue of the difference between the calorific requirements of men and women however. That extra five hundred calories a day that a ‘typical’ man is allowed is often commented on enviously by my better half.

Andrew said on January 5, 2007 8:25 AM

Red is obviously an emotive colour in this country with negative connotations, which is exactly why it is used to indicate unhealthy.

I can see their argument, imagine being stood beside the checkout with a whole row of red items starting back that anyone can see. It would be a detraction certainly.

While many will argue, I’m sure, that that is precisely the point of it, an alternative would be to use a simple 1 to five scale. 1 very good, 5 very bad.

The numbers will still tell the story, but without the negative colour associations.

Or they could just write - unhealthy - on it in big letters. Either way is good for me.

ramin said on January 5, 2007 9:49 AM

In Finland in all the cases that I can recall the amounts are given primarily in either 100 grams or 0.1 liters. As an additional column a suggested serving size may also be given (with the weight/volume of the suggested serving size).

The standardized amount used would help in making real comparisons on the differences in products as serving sizes may differ.

Simon Wright said on January 5, 2007 12:41 PM

I’m in the UK on holiday and it’s been fascinating to watch this play out in the media.

I think it boils down to drawing a line between simplicity (the traffic lights at one extreme) and providing more meaningful information which may be less useful for those making quick comparisons between products on the shelf.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of the GDA approach was on the packaging at a French burger chain:

Photo at flickr

It’s got a lot of information to convey and therefore needs to be quite large on the package but it does present both the numerical data plus the bar charts show the amounts in a visual way, which may be more useful for those without numeracy skills.

Importantly, it also shows the different percentages of GDA for both women and men, as Andy Croll mentioned earlier.

Matthijs said on January 5, 2007 12:45 PM

Interesting discussion. Personally I find the color coding misleading. And I can understand the food industry doesn’t like it. One single item/serving of a specific food is not either “healthy” or “not-healthy”. It’s about what you eat during days, weeks or longer what matters.

In specific situations an “unhealthy” food item might be good for me. Like when I just finished a hard day of working in the heat, a sweet soda and some salty chips might actually be the right food for my body at that moment.

Ben Sauer said on January 5, 2007 1:18 PM

Whilst I agree that the colours alone simplify a complicated issue and may only form part of a solution, I have no sympathy for the food industry’s distaste the scheme’s emotive power.

We use emotive colour every day for safety, often in ambiguous situations that still require further judgement, e.g. amber traffic lights.

I don’t know why they’re so afraid of it either: does anyone think that cigarette health warnings have actually worked?

Dumitru tira said on January 5, 2007 3:02 PM

Traffic light is the best, but how about a 10 level traffic light instead of the original 3 level one?

The manufacturers don’t have to like it, it must be imposed by the law, consumer rights my friends :D

Alex said on January 5, 2007 3:40 PM

I think each value should be contained inside a human-shaped silhouette - a svelte figure for low sugar/fat values, a Rubenesque one for high sugar/fat values. Sausage rolls and Big Macs could have a skull and crossbones.

dave said on January 6, 2007 6:10 PM

The colour / traffic light system doesn’t seem at all “natural or intuitive” - after all, green apples aren’t healthier than red ones, it’s just appropriating learned behaviour from one sign-system to another.

Of course this will make learning the new system a lot simpler for the end user, but it’s going to carry connotations of the original system. The “red = stop” connotation that manufacturers may object conversely serves the Health Secretaries objectives for lowering the national figure for heart-disease.

An even more simpler system based on the actual properties of the object rather than signs could be developed: if the food has that much packaging - it’s probably not going to be healthy at all.

Achtentachtig said on January 7, 2007 4:15 PM

I think that Quick got a pretty solid solution for this problem, as you can see on the photo posted by Simon Wright. It is clear for the consumer and not too offending for the producer.

But in general I think that the consumers are number one concern in this debate. This whole system is made for them, not for the producers. The producers should not have any influence in this. A big red dot on their products will encourage them to create more healthier food which is positive for everyone on the long term.

jens persson said on January 8, 2007 11:09 AM

In Sweden we have a very simplified system, in each class of foodstuff there are some limits for fat, salt and sugars that if your below it you get to carry the keyhole . So when I’m shopping I simply select one of the product that have the mark and its healthier then the average.

The rules for getting the mark is tightened now and then when to many products are complying.

Shimon said on January 8, 2007 7:08 PM

It’s a great idea, to make it more useful for fast understanding, but I’d say they should leave the original label too. At least it contains more information for those, who are looking for it.

Also, I like the idea with the traffic lights, but may be they can find a compromise in creating three-step graffic, where the highest level will mean “high amount”, and the lowest - “low”. And add there three horizontal lines, to make it easy to see where which level is.

This way I think is also good and quick recognizable, isn’t it?

Mike Bryan said on January 9, 2007 2:26 AM

I think most people would find the traffic light symbols the easiest to understand and quickly make healthy choices. Health Canada
present label system requires much more time to decipher while the health check symbol is great for those with heart concerns.

Leonardo said on January 12, 2007 2:10 AM

The GDA system will work fine for us colorblinds.

Mike said on January 14, 2007 5:25 AM

I dont know why we need ANYthing labeling food. People need to become more responsible and take account for their own actions. If they want to eat fat, let them, If they want to smoke, let them. But also do not let them complain when they get sick or die from whatever when there is plenty of information out there and they know damn well what’s good for them and what isnt!