Thursday, October 18, 2007

The problem with nutrition information

We recently took a kind of photography trip to Vermont to see the Fall leaves in 'bloom'. My wife is an avid photographer so this is the sort of stuff she lives for. I, on the other hand, am partially red-green color blind. Fall leaves look various shades of unusual green to me. My wife assures me I am missing out on a lot.

On the drive up to Vermont we took one of the toll roads north. A toll road in America is an interesting phenomenon. It is usually slightly better than your average non-toll road and along its stretch are various places to stop and rest. All these rest areas look exactly the same (and are unusually symmetrical in construction - I once walked out the opposite entrance and thought our car had been stolen as the front and back parking lots looked identical). And they all contain the same types of fast food outlets.

We don't typically eat a lot of fast food but we hadn't indulged in a while and were in a hurry. So we rolled up to the nearest McD's and ordered our usual. After getting it and sitting down I noticed, for the first time, the nutritional information on the box. Below is a picture of the Quarter Pounder's info:

My first instinct was to throw up. I realized this stuff was bad for you, but not quite that bad. And I now understand why these companies were so keen to keep this information off the box.

In studying it more though, it struck me that the display of nutritional information is woefully inadequate if you know nothing about nutrition. For instance, the only information that gives you any context is the Percent of Daily Value (PDV). But what if you had heard that saturated fat was an important component of your diet and you needed to make sure you hit your daily quota? You'd be loving this meal. It's a one stop saturated fat mecca. Cholesterol only 30%! Great, I have only two other meals in the day and 70% to play with! And on top of that, it is low in carbs and low in sugar. And wow, 30% of my calcium! I can forget that glass of milk in the morning now as well.

Of course, this is all wrong. This is one of the most unhealthy meals you can have. But from this nutritional information, that's not easy to conclude unless you already know a bit about health and food.

Information without the proper context is useless. The extent to which you give it context can be more or less complicated, but it needs to be there.

The UK has recently implemented a 'traffic-light' labeling method for food products sold in stores. I think this sort of thing is a move in the right direction. It at least tells you the relative 'goodness' of high or low values of certain ingredients.

A better system would be one more tailored to your own health needs. People with a high risk of heart disease for instance, should have a different set of saturated fat criteria. Women who are pregnant should have alternative priorities. Likewise people with liver problems or even people just looking to lose a bit of weight. How such a system would work is a harder question.

But whatever is implemented, the good old Quarter Pounder should probably have a skull and cross bones beside it - 'a real and imminent chance of death if consumed in excess'.

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Tony said...

Well at least it has 12% of your daily fiber... As a native New Englander, I can visualize the changing of the leaves. It really is a sight worth seeing! I guess if you are eating at MCD, then you probably shouldn't have too high of expectations. You can relate fast food to InfoVis as well. People just don't have the time for anything anymore. So fast food has become main stream. Many times, executives don't have the time to analyze the data and make fact-based decisions. They tend to go with their gut or intuition. That's why hiring a professional cook or analytics expert can sometimes just make sense. In your case, maybe preparing something ahead of time would have been better on the heart and arteries...

Paul Soldera said...

I think next time we are definitely packing a lunch! It's an interesting point you make about fact based decisions versus gut ones - I tend to believe both are important, but in different ways. I have a post in my head based on some stuff Malcolm Gladwell has said that talks about this.

Thx for the comment!