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Meet The Man Behind The 'Nutrition Facts' Label

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I Can't Believe It's Not Butter's nutrition label is located on the back of the container.
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I Can't Believe It's Not Butter's nutrition label is located on the back of the container.

Burkey Belser's work is on just about every food item sold in the United States. It's that ubiquitous black and white box -- the nutrition fact label.

When revealing this to others, it generates all kinds of reactions. Belser's wife, Donna Greenfield says, mainly, people want to know if they get royalties.

"Which, of course we do not," she says. "If we got royalties, we would be the richest people in the world right now."

"When design works, it looks like it's always been there," says Belser.

This was the first food label of its kind in the United States. Food labeling in the early 20th century was geared toward making sure consumers got enough vitamins and minerals to avoid diseases, like scurvy and rickets. But then, in the 1950s, the interstate highway system changed the way we buy and consume food. Nutritious fruits and vegetables were available in the winter, and at the same time, manufacturers began developing more processed foods.

By 1980, the U.S. had a totally different issue on its hands: obesity. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed a law that gave the Food and Drug Administration authority to require nutritional labeling on most foods. They had spent years deciding what should be on the label, but in order to make consumers notice it, they would need a designer to jazz it up.

One of the early ideas was to create a logo of a rising sun. "We thought that would be a great image of health, but in fact, people couldn't tell whether the sun was rising or setting," says Belser.

Using various colors was out of the question as well. "Does red say 'don't use this food'? Does green say this food is good, when this may not be a healthy choice?"

They tried organizing the items into 'good nutrients' and 'bad nutrients.' But, that idea was rejected by FDA scientists. They went through 35 different versions, incorporating pie charts, bar charts and illustrations.

A better nutrition label

A final draft was eventually created. The design consisted of a thin border going around the label, creating a box, which "kept manufacturers off that turf," says Belser. The 8-point font allowed for extra space on the package.

Two thick lines separated the macro-nutrients (fats, sodium and carbohydrates) from the micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals). The nutrients alternated between bold and light type, "guiding the reader through the structure of the label itself," Belser explains.

Belser was happy with it. The public accepted it. The FDA loved it. In an op-ed for AIGA's magazine, Italian designer Massimo Vignelli called it "a masterpiece of graphic design."

But does it actually work?

"I often ask myself whether the label actually works," says Belser. "This label is so complex, I doubt people could tell you what a carbohydrate was, in general."

The label is now in its 20th year, and the FDA confirms it is being overhauled. One of the top concerns is sugar. As of now, sugar has no daily value. Is 10 grams a lot of sugar? The label doesn't help you figure that out.

Belser says he has been involved with the redesign, and says the public probably won't see sugar treated any differently. There is no daily value for sugars, he explains, and that is unlikely to change.

Belser anticipates that we will see more information about allergens and artificial ingredients. He's a bit fearful his original design will be ruined, but for the greater good and improved public health, Belser says he is willing to let it rest in peace, up somewhere in design heaven.


[Music: "Nutrition Song" by Mr. Parr, based on "Is Anybody Out There?" by K'naan]

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