In September 2022, on the occasione of the presentation of the White House new strategic plan on hunger, nutrition and health, the Biden-Harris administration brought attention to the importance of the information accessibility of food products. Among the actions envisaged by the plan, the standardization of nutritional information on the front of the packs, to help people make healthier and more informed choices about their diet.
The new system proposed by the White House would be implemented to help consumers, particularly those with less “nutritional literacy”, to quickly and easily identify the foods that form the basis of a healthy lifestyle.
This provision reinforces what was already established at the beginning of the 90’s in the United States Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which it already placed as a priority, in the face of a progressive spread of health problems related to obesity and poor nutrition, the development of an education program, aimed at the entire population starting with children, and intervention on the packaging of all foods marketed in the USA (including imported ones), so that they correctly report the nutritional indications in order to make more informed choices, for a healthy and balanced diet.
One of the objectives of the US government was, in the first place, to simplify information that would otherwise be too complex and to transfer it in a clear and understandable way to all consumers, including the less cultivated. Secondly, to develop a graphic configuration of the information that was the same for all products, but flexible in application to the different categories of food and to the various formats and supports, including the “poorest” ones printed at low quality and in black / white. . Finally, to ensure the visibility and graphic readability of the information, taking up as little space as possible on the package so as not to create an excessive footprint compared to the total surface of the packaging.
In response to the need to convey clear and understandable nutritional information, the designer Burkey Belser developed between 1993 and 1994 the project of a graphic system in which the communicative contents are encoded and organized in standard tables of different formats, in black and white, adaptable to the packaging of different products.
Among the aspects taken into consideration by Belser to favor the graphical readability of the tables, in the project particular attention was paid to the choice of the font (Franklin Gothic for the title, Helvetica for the other information units) and the size of the text according to each specific configuration. To ensure the visibility and comprehensibility of the information, the space occupied was delimited using a black thread that defined an easily identifiable field and that did not allow the other contents conveyed by the package to be “overrun”. Finally, to facilitate the reading order of the information, these have been visually hierarchized using a “black” character to highlight the most important contents, aligning the lines of text to highlight the relationships between the parts, isolating the different data blocks with lines of different thickness. The so-called “Nutrition Facts” were then revised in 2016 to reflect updated scientific information, including that on the link between diet and chronic diseases, such as obesity and heart disease.
The introduction of the standardized nutritional table was a real revolution for the food sector in the USA and, certainly, the anticipation of this table on the packaging front would now generate a further epochal change in the market with a significant visual impact on the shelf.
Standardizing the elements of the front area of packaging from a graphic point of view, in fact, would strongly change the identity of the products, reducing their differentiating elements and making them less recognizable and distinguishable in increasingly saturated sales contexts.
To remedy this phenomenon, new packaging solutions could appear, for example larger packages (with the risk of over-packaging) to ensure a good “facing” and stand out, or they could be enhanced – more desirable option – advanced digital solutions (Metaverso , AR, VR, MR, etc.) to take advantage of virtual spaces and thus differentiate themselves from the competition.
In addition to anticipating nutritional information on the pack front, the Biden-Harris administration is also evaluating the possibility of standardizing a simplified classification system with symbols or color codes, which can help ensure the accessibility of content for all people.
Anticipate some indications on the nutritional profile of the product in a synthetic form on the primary area of the package, for example through a coded system of the “traffic light” type (where green represents a healthier option and red a less healthy option) such as the one in use in the UK, may perhaps be a more feasible solution to simplify purchasing and consumption choices, favoring access to the most relevant content and delegating to the secondary areas only an in-depth information function. A predominantly iconic graphic rendering, in fact, offers an immediate and rapid overall understanding of the nutritional information of the food, without having to waste too much time tracing it on the package (and avoiding that it is not read).
In reality, some user companies on the market have already adopted this double method of communicating information for some time. On the front area of an increasing number of products there are references to the specific properties of foods in relation not only to the nutritional profile, but also to the possible presence (or absence) of allergens and other substances considered potentially harmful. In some cases, new brands and product lines have been created, starting from the specific characteristics of the food, which take their name from the elimination from the products of components considered dangerous for certain groups of recipients (lactose, gluten, etc.) , making sure that this “absence” is not experienced as a defect, but as an advantage for the consumer (such as, for example, the BFree brand or the line Tesco’s free from ).
Globally, many governments are implementing policies to reduce excessive consumption of unhealthy foods, improve nutrition and prevent the rise of obesity and diseases associated with malnutrition. Among the strategies recommended by the WHO, it is particularly important to improve the information present on the front of the packs. Among the strategies reccomended by the WHO, it is particularly important to improve the information present on the front of the packs.
In 2016, a one-of-a-kind law was enacted in Chile, the main measure of which included the obligation to place specific warnings on foods and beverages that exceed the thresholds set for certain nutrients or for the total calorie content.
The law specifically establishes that food products with a high content of added sugars, sodium or saturated fats, or with a high caloric intake, must have black octagons on the front of the packaging with the words “high in ”(In Spanish,“ alto en ”), followed by the indication of the element present in excess, as appropriate.
Other significant legal restrictions for these products include limitations in advertising foods and beverages considered harmful to the health of children and adolescents (including the elimination of characters and other recall elements on the packaging) and the prohibition of their sale in kindergartens and schools.
To meet the demand for flexibility in implementation by the food industry, the policy was designed for a gradual, three-step implementation between 2016 and 2018. According to a study conducted in Chile after the implementation of the first phase of the law, a significant decrease in overall purchases of products with the “high content” warning was found, partially offset by an increase in purchases of non-high-content products. According to initial assessments, the law seems to have contributed to changing dietary behaviors and purchasing and consumption choices. However, the actual understanding of information, for example the concept of portion or recommended daily dose is still being studied (commonly referred to in English as “Recommended Daily Allowance” or RDA), beyond the adoption of only the quantity of black octagons on the front of the package as a criterion for purchasing choice.
In conclusion, regardless of the solution adopted to communicate the nutritional information of a food product, the importance of correctly designing the packaging is once again underlined to educate to a more informed consumption. And its ethical responsibility towards people and society is strongly reaffirmed, as an essential communication tool for promoting virtuous behavior and healthy lifestyles.