What if Nutrition Labels Had Pictures?

If you can stop drinking soda, your sugar intake will drop significantly. (Photo: Niels Hariot/Shutterstock)

A recent recommendation by Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the U.K.'s Royal Society for Public Health, for food labels, got me thinking. In the article in the Daily Mail, she suggested that food and drink labels should include information about how long it would take someone to burn off the calories consumed. It made me think about how we could take away some of the guesswork about that information.

Would sugar cubes be more helpful than grams?

I've already discussed the issue of putting the amount of sugar in grams on a nutrition label. Most people don't know how much a gram of sugar is. Four grams of sugar are about the same as one teaspoon. Wouldn't it be more helpful to put the amount of sugar in a food or drink in teaspoons?

Better yet, wouldn't it be more helpful to put a photo of a sugar cube or a teaspoon of sugar and then a number indicating how many cubes or teaspoons are in there? For a sugary beverage like the one shown above, a photo of a sugar cube and a "x 15" next to it might make someone think twice about drinking the beverage — much more influential than knowing the drink contains 60g of sugar.

Yes, 60g may be accurate, but is it clear? Fifteen sugar cubes is definitely clear.

Grams of sodium or a photo of salt?

Do you really have any idea how much salt is in the food your eating?. (Photo: Jinny Pearce/flickr)

Grams of sugar may be confusing, but milligrams of salt are even more confounding. Some foods are very high in sodium. Progresso Vegetable Classics Hearty Tomato Soup for instance, has 1,110 mg of salt per cup serving, according to Food Facts. How much is that really?

A teaspoon of salt is equal to 2,300 mg. The serving of soup is almost a half teaspoon of salt (and also 75 percent of the recommended daily amount). If the nutrition label had a photo of a teaspoon of salt and a "x .5" on it, would many people think, "Wow, that's a lot of salt. If I made my own soup, I wouldn't stick an entire half teaspoon per cup in it." Would the visual be better at effectively informing people of the amount of salt in the product?

How long do you have to walk the dog for you to burn off a candy bar?

walking the dog
Seeing how many minutes you'd have to walk to burn calories might make you rethink that candy. (Photo: Nick Kenrick/flickr)

Would you like to know just how long you're going to have to walk or jog in order to reverse the damage done by a Snickers bar? According to Shirley Cramer who suggested adding exercise times to food labels, it would take 56 minutes of brisk walking (so grab a dog that wants to walk you) or 35 minutes of running to negate the candy bar.

Would that information on the candy bar, perhaps relayed by a graphic of someone walking and the number of minutes necessary to burn off the calories, make someone wonder if the satisfaction of a Snickers is worth it?

My guess is that all this visual information might make a difference to some people, but the reality may be that many people may still ignore the easy-to-understand information. A 2013 Carnegie Mellon study found that the calorie count information on menus at places like McDonald's and Starbucks hasn't made much of an impact on people's choices. Despite knowing that a Double Whopper can contain up to 1,590 calories, the majority of people still ordered one without concern.

Still, I'm all for giving information about the nutrition of food in the most transparent way possible, so some changes are a good idea. You never know what may make a person take notice to the nutritional truths of what they choose to put in their bodies.