FDA Food Label, A Paragon of Legibility

After watching an elephant disappear in front of a crowded theater (so the story goes), a young man asked Harry Houdini, "How did you do it?" For once, the magician revealed his secret: "Easy, my dear boy... Misdirection!"

People rarely understand the magic of design. Even those acknowledging its capabilities usually are not aware of how potent design is in shaping our thoughts on an everyday basis. Designers often point to how well they can draw attention to a product, idea, or company as examples of design's influence. However, design is often more influential not through shedding light on something, but in making it disappear.

Food, for example, is something each of us makes a choice about several times a day. People choose foods for any number of reasons and few would list 'design' as one of them. Yet design may very well have changed our diet as much as any other factor in the past one hundred years. And not in the way you may think: as much as eye-popping logos and targeted branding have influenced our diet, a more innocuous piece of design has made all the difference in the world.

In 1906, Congress passed the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act. It was one of the first consumer protection acts passed in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration followed after food producers incessantly attempted to subvert the new standards. The combination of advertising's heyday of the 1920s followed by the demand for cheap goods during the Great Depression had food industries concerned strict standards might eliminate their cheaper products from the marketplace. Naturally, they lobbied hard for greater influence over the standards.

Through various devices, they managed to get their way. For example, in the 1950s, Ocean Spray found a way to create the same taste of its juice, but with less real juice (cranberries are expensive to cultivate). They discovered that a syrupy by-product of corn was a dead ringer for the taste of sugar. Exploiting a loophole in the "PURE" Food and Drug Act, it sailed past the FDA. Cheaply refined corn syrup quickly became a top ingredient in many processed foods and popular beverages.

The evidence supporting corn syrup's corrosive effect on the human body has done little to impact its use. Even those aware of soda companies using their 'soft' drink as an engine degreaser has not deterred them from giving the stuff to their own children. This theme is a recurring one, from the partially hydrogenated soybean oil in our Oreos to the potentially lethal compound TBHQ in Chicken McNuggets.

For some time now, the food industry has been able to manufacture and market virtually any substance as a 'food' with virtually no one batting an eyelash, even as these substances become gradually less and less food-like and the potential dangers of ingesting them gradually increase.

The problem the food industry faced at the turn of the last century was one of concern for the common good. The problem they faced at the turn of this century was the concern for the individual waistline. During the 1990s, America began to notice the elephant in the room. And most were not pleased to find it was their own shadow.

People were looking at their bulging bellies and beginning to question what they were putting in their bodies. If the majority of consumers learned what corn syrup and substitutes like it were doing to them, no one would purchase anything containing them! With the information age booming, coupled with the advent of jogging, gyms, and Jazzercise, the food industry was bound to be forced into changing its ways, right?

Why is it then that seemingly no one knows exactly what corn syrup is, or how soybean oil can be partially hydrogenated? And why are we eating it every day? And most importantly, should we be feeding these things to our children? Why do we continue to get bigger and more unhealthy every year while at the same time paying more attention to our food than ever before?

In 1990, the FDA introduced the mandatory food label. This is the clean and efficiently designed black and white label that is on nearly every food item you have purchased in the past 15 years. This label clearly illuminates elements of a food's content, like fat, calories, and carbohydrates. The idea is that the FDA determines how much of each element of a food's composition the average person should have every day, and by adding up the total amount of elements we consume each day, we can determine mathematically whether or not we are eating healthy.

The efficacy of this method of eating is debatable, but with widening waistlines every year since the label's inception, the conclusion can be drawn that the label is not making us healthier. What's more, it is quite possible to argue that the label has been a significant factor in the decline of our health.

How can you sell somebody something that makes them less and less healthy, while they are focusing more and more on being healthy? How can you convince a mom to send her child to school with a lunchbox filled with refined sugars, agricultural by-products, and manufactured chemical compounds and still feel good about it?

Easy, my dear boy... Misdirection!

For a lesson in typography, look no further than food packaging. The FDA label is a paragon of legibility, a superbly executed piece of design. The type uses upper and lower case letters for readability like a book or magazine. It utilizes bold and italic to differentiate words. When you turn over any package at the grocery store, your eye immediately jumps to the food label.

Contrast this with the ingredients list on any package with it's stacked, all caps tightly kerned letters. Two seconds of reading and your eyes are darting to something more stimulating. This sort of typography is used all the time in the design world: in the small print. In other words, when you turn a food package over, the list of ingredients is generally the last thing your eye notices.

With consumers scrutinizing packages more diligently than ever, companies looking toward their bottom line have found that the best way to include cheap and harmful ingredients into our food is as simple as getting us to simply not pay attention to the ingredients anymore.

And all it took was the magic of design.

Davis James
Davis James
Guest Author

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