The Visual Display of Fattening Information

November 25, 2007

Last week, I watched the “60 Minutes” segment about chain restaurants and the growing pressure by New York health officials to prominently display calorie counts.*

My mind turned an ashamed eye back to a Starbucks in Washington, DC, which fed me a small mocha frappuccino a day for an entire, hot summer. Urban legend has it that a frappuccino has ‘as much fat as a Big Mac.’ I never motivated to research this until now… <researching>… actually, the small one isn’t as bad as that. Phew. Apparently hyperbole goes both ways in the Obesity Wars. But I’ll stick with tea.

Back to “60 Minutes”. Lesley Stahl accuses a calorie count board hanging at a Wendy’s of being “drab and easy to miss.” From what I saw in the video, that seemed a bit unfair. True, the text is small. But there’s lots of stuff to show (which is probably why the Starbucks site is very interactive).

From the show’s online summary:

[A Wendy’s spokesperson] says that because Americans love to customize — adding cheese or extra mayo — providing accurate information is nearly impossible… [He] showed 60 Minutes a Wendy’s menu board that lists the combos.

He then showed Stahl what it would look like [with calorie counts]: a dense, cluttered board, with tiny type. “Obviously … no one can read it. And you would have to see this from eight feet away,” [he] explains.

“Let me see. This is absurd. Oh my gosh,” Stahl remarks.

Seeing the board, I saw an information design problem. A problem for:

Edward Tufte.

As far as I know, Mr. Tufte has never tackled this. How would he — or any information designer — present calorie counts in a way that is accurate, comprehensive, and easy to read at a glance?

Would it change how people order? Would it change how they eat?

In other, more dramatic terms: Could good information design fight obesity? (Has it already, in supermarket labeling?)

*The logic that targets the chains is a bit bizarre, according to “60 Minutes”:

The calorie labeling in New York would not apply to “calorie Meccas,” like Chinese restaurants, delis, and fancy French bistros. The chains were singled out because they already publish nutritional information about their food…

Would I want to be confronted with calorie counts wherever I eat out? No. Would I want to know, when choosing where to eat, that the worst of the offenders had been banned? Sure. For example, while it would be naive to trust that the FDA vets everything, there’s a reason it exists.


2 Responses to “The Visual Display of Fattening Information”

  1. crazy cat lady Says:

    I’d be surprised if a sign with calorie info has any effect on community obesity – though it _would_ be a pretty interesting and not terribly difficult public health study to perform. I think that supermarket labeling only started to happen in the 1970s, and that was the beginning of the obesity boom, so that kind of suggests that labeling alone won’t do it. I think calorie information is likely to have an effect only if you’re already actively dieting, in which case you probably are willing to seek out the information or are sticking with food that you know to be good for you. It might therefore be more effective to actively promote a set of “healthiest” foods at each FF place, kind of like the Subway approach.

  2. Glass Pirate Says:

    I think it is nutty that some one wants a sign which they can read from 8 feet away. Seriously, how many people can read 8pt font from 8 feet?

    The idea is interesting but at least the caloric information is listed unlike at many other places. When is the last time you saw caloric information posted in a place serving up fois gras?

    The crazy cat lady is 100% correct that the caloric information is only a deterrent if the person is already interested in it. Then again who in their right mind would be in a Wendys or other fastfood place if they were interested in what they put inside themselves. It seems like another example of the media hunting for stories and scapegoats.

    Maybe americans shouldn’t eat 4x what they need to and put the fork down?

    Having failed to address the information side, no I don’t think that better organized information will alter a decent percentage of Americans eating habits.

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