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Novel Food Labels and Dinner Plates Could Improve Our Diets

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Image courtesy of iStockphoto/travellinglight

SAN ANTONIO, Texas—Choosing what foods—and how much of them—to eat can be an annoying or even anguishing decision, with confusing labels and health stats vying for your attention. Or it can be too much of a no-brainer, with your hand reaching for whatever is closest without much of a second thought.

With more than two thirds of Americans now classified as obese or overweight, making smarter eating choices has become not just a matter of individual wellness but also a matter of national public—and, arguably, economic—health. Conditions associated with excessive weight, including diabetes, heart disease and joint problems, are putting increasing strain on health care costs across the country.

Researchers are looking for ways to help make these multitudinous daily choices much simpler. Several of them presented diverse approaches September 22 here at the Obesity Society’s Annual Scientific Meeting. Simple changes from easy-to-read labels on the front of food packages to the proportions of your dinner plate could help make eating right a much easier option.

Finding the right foods
Many of these researchers are focused on the increasingly confusing products lining the aisles of grocery stores. With the proliferation of healthy-choice check marks and other industry labels placed on packages, nutritionists are concerned that such proprietary insignia are sending the wrong message. Just because a food item, such as a sugary breakfast cereal, has been enriched with iron or vitamins does not mean that it is a nutritious, healthful meal. And with increasingly cluttered packages—referred to by one commenter in the audience as the “NASCAR-ization” of food packaging—it becomes more difficult for even health conscious consumers to wade through the noise.

Jacob Seidell, of the University of Amsterdam, explained a simplified scheme that has been rolled out in the Netherlands (one of the few countries that has national front-of-packaging labeling standards). The labeling system relies on independent analysisof a food item to decide if it is a healthful choice or not. Basic foods, such as produce, grains and dairy products, are granted one type of check (“health choice”) and what he calls “non-essential foods,” such as condiments, desserts or other highly processed foods, get another check (“conscious choice”) if they meet the health standards. This distinction was important, Seidell joked, so people don’t confuse low-fat mayonnaise as a healthy choice on the same level as broccoli.

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture are reviewing proposals for standardized front-of packaging labels. Ellen Wartella, of Northwestern University, led the Institute of Medicine’s committee to assess what sorts of labels might be most useful for consumers to help them make healthier selections. Her group arrived at a suggestion for a simple icon- and point-based system that would award an easily recognizable icon and an overall point total for products that did not exceed recommended levels for saturated fat, sugar and sodium intake. The key, she said, is simplicity. She noted that one popular effort to improve choices in the store, called Facts Up Front, would not add much more confusion for customers. Facts Up Front proposes to include reference numbers for calories, fat, sodium, sugar and manufacturer-selected nutrients for each serving. But layering on more numbers—without information on what the numbers mean —is not a big step forward, she noted.

But it might be some time before we have a standardized, easy-to-interpret label on our groceries. In the midst of an election, Wartella said, she doesn’t expect much headway to be made in the coming months. Even if a front-of-package standard is selected soon, she expects it to be at least two years (including much back and forth with the industry) before it appears on grocery shelves.

If and when these labels do arrive, Wartella noted, “simply providing information about health does not always influence how people eat.” But, even if people choose to ignore labels, the food manufacturing companies sure will not be. As Seidell cited from research on the experience in the Netherlands, once labels denoting healthy choices appeared on foods based on their overall nutritional makeup, many producers began reformulating their products, reducing added sugar and fat and increasing fiber content so that they, too could earn the check mark. So eventually, all consumers could benefit by having healthier options to choose from—regardless of whether or not they read the labels.

Picking portions
Once groceries have been purchased and dinner is ready, the often-unacknowledged question becomes: how much to serve. In an ideal world, a serving would perfectly match our caloric needs. But research has consistently proven our eyes to be bigger than our stomachs, such that our stomachs seem to expand to match what we see in front of us. In other words, if there’s more food right in front of us, we eat more.

But what if there were ways to trick our eyes—an perhaps therefore our minds and our stomachs—into thinking there was actually more on our plates than there actually was, therefore possibly decreasing the amount that we serve and subsequently consume? There just might be because “not all small plates are created equal,” Arianna McClain, of Stanford University, noted. The plate is an opportunity to play on the handy trick is known as the Delboeuf illusion, she explained. When an object has a bigger frame around it, it looks bigger. And that seems to hold true with food on plates, too, she noted.

McClain and her colleagues had study participants pick between two pictures of food on a plate and say which one looked like a larger serving. When plates had wider rims, the same serving of food looked larger (by about 11 percent) than it did when it was presented on a plate with a smaller rim or no rim at all, she reported. The same thing happened when the rim was colored. A plate with a colored rim made small portions of food appear larger.

“These findings can be used to design plates to influence perception of food portion size and dietary intake,” she said. Just by eating from a plate with a wide rim, adults would theoretically cut out some 200 calories just because they would perceive that they already had more food on their plates. (Because colored rims worked best to fool the eye with smaller portions, they would only knock out about 40 calories.) But just by trimming these extra calories out of daily consumption on a regular basis, many people could get closer to their weight-loss or healthy weight goals—without a rigorous diet. She and her colleagues are currently working on experiments to test how plate size affects families over time in the real world.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. ErnestPayne 7:56 pm 09/25/2012

    The problem with the US is the byzantine political interference with science. Witness the food pyramid squabble of a few years ago. Perhaps mandatory classes in home economics would benefit people.

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  2. 2. vapur 4:17 am 09/26/2012

    Foraging burns more calories than pushing a shopping cart down a grocery store aisle, and can lead to healthier foods on your plate. You don’t need to resort to fancy tricks either, since you will need a 4000 calorie diet due to activity instead of a 2000 one reinforcing sitting on your butt.

    Foraging: the lost knowledge of an entire generation. Probably because people think dandelions, daisies, and purslane are noxious weeds. Additionally, it’s a great way to reduce your grocery bill.

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