A few months ago, the US Food and Drug Administration redesigned the nutrition facts label. The FDAmade subtle improvements to the label’slegibility, and even published an explainer, to teach people how to read it. These upgrades were well received; but if you ask Sam Slover, theres still plenty of room for improvement.
Slover is co-founder of the Sage Project, a new online platform that reimagines food data for the Internet age. Slovers vision isnt a label; it’san interactive web app. Sage deconstructs more than 20,000 fresh and packaged foods (mostly organic brands from Whole Foods, for now) into interactive, personalized blurbsof informationthat make thebasics of food labels—calories, top nutrients, ingredients, and allergens—easier todigest.
Slover wantedto provide people with more than raw data about the foods they eat. He wanted to communicate what a food’s nutritional contentactually means in the context of a person’s health, activity levels, and fitness goals.We want to unlock data and give it back to people in ways that are actionable, he says.
Take theingredients list, for example. The FDA’s label itemizes ingredients in descending order of weight. It seems straightforward enough, but when Slover asked dieticians which aspects of the FDA’s food label they found troublesome, they repeatedly pointed to this list. Knowing what items are in your food is different from knowing what those items are and where they originate. That’s important information, but there’s no room for iton the FDA’slabel.
Sage solves for this design problem, and others, by deconstructing the traditionalfood label into bite-sized infographics.Slover and his team assign everyitem of food in the Sage database a webpage. At the top of each page are the item’s five most plentiful nutrients. Scroll down the page and you’ll find a granularanalysis of the food’s nutritional content, divided into nutrients you should seek out and onesyou should limit.
Scroll a little further for exercise equivalents. (You would need to run for ten minutes to burn off one serving of these naan chips.) Scroll a little more and you’ll findan annotated list of ingredients and allergens. Don’t know what niacin is? Just click the little information icon. If it’s a product we havent seen before, we classify it and give it a regular person description, Slover says. Scroll all the way to the bottom of the pageto finda mapindicatingthe food’s country of origin. If it’s produced by a company, the map will also showwhere that company is based.
If Sage has a drawback, it’s that it actuallyprovide too much information. There are certain people who really like the details, but there are other people who find it overwhelming, says Angela Lemond, a dietician with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. That said, she commends Sage forpreempting information overloadwith its customization features. You don’t need a profile to use Sage, but creating one letsyou choose the information that’s presented to you, and mold it to your dietary restrictions and health goals. The end result is an interactive experience thatfeels very personal. “Its not going to tell you how to put a meal together or how to shop to get breakfast on the table for your kids in 10 minutes,” Lemond says, “but it does give you individualized, detailed information about specific foods.”
Of course, Sage can do this because it doesn’t have to fit on the back of a bagof chips. Not everyone will want(or need) all the information Sage provides; for plenty of people, calorie countmightbe all they care to know about the food they’re eating. But for a more conscientiouseater, a tool likeSage is a well-organized, informationally dense mine of information.