TAOI: Nutrition Facts Labels

The architecture of information:

If you want to see an excellent example of an information architecture that affects your day-to-day experience, examine the contents of your pantry. In many countries, most packaged food products will include a label that looks something like this:

U.S. Nutrition Facts Label
Image by U.S. Food and Drug Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia

This is what is known as a nutrition facts label. The label shows you various informational facets about the foodstuff you’re about to consume: carbohydrates, sodium, fats, vitamins, nutritional energy, etc. These facets are often presented both in absolute terms (e.g., energy in calories or joules) or relative terms (e.g., energy as a percentage provided by the foodstuff against a standard, usually defined by the government.)

In many cases, such as the one above, the visual presentation of nutritional labels has a clear information hierarchy. In the United States, food’s energy potential (measured in calories) is often the primary facet. This feature of the label’s design reflects the culture’s general understanding that consuming lots of high-calorie foods can be unhealthy. (Some countries establish strict regulations on how these labels can be laid out; they do this because layout tweaks could mislead consumers — intentionally or not.)

In any case, the presence of nutritional labels transforms our experience of consuming food. In a culture in which food is widely understood to have these informational characteristics, eating a cheeseburger is not a mere matter of qualia; you can’t just enjoy one without knowing that in doing so you’re using up a certain number of the day’s allotted calories. This is not to pass judgment on the concept of nutrition labels. Having access to more information about food can help you make decisions that lead to a longer, healthier life. But what is beyond question is that understanding food not just in terms of taste, satiety, texture, etc., but also in the more abstract terms of sodium content, fat content, caloric content, etc. changes the experience of eating.