A Better Nutrition Label (And Fitness Guide, Kind Of)

Nutrition labels are kind of bad: full of information that means nothing to most people, a design that doesn't encourage people to read them, and not personalized. Sage is trying to address that—and, with some hiccups, it feels like it's making a good start.

That the official FDA nutrition labels, the black and white chart of ingredients and nutrients, are lacking in appeal is no secret. Back in February 2014, the Obama administration announced changes to the label to make certain facts more visible–calorie count, for example—and to include new facts, like added sugars. But there are plenty of people who think the new labels don’t go far enough, and some of those are even trying to improve them. Take Sage, a new sort of alternate nutrition label that’s now available to use.

Sage is different than a typical label in plenty of ways. Just a quick look at the website shows a bright, colorful array of squares and rectangles, each with a different bit of information. Those are very different from the typical staid gram amounts and percentages featured on the FDA’s label.

“We want food data to be more transparent, accessible, and based around great design that helps consumers make sense of it all,” writes Sam Slover of Sage in an email. That means that there are more real-world bits of data in there, like the amount of exercise (minutes spent playing soccer, for example) that it would take to burn off the item’s amount of calories. It tells you which artificial ingredients to be wary of. It tells you whether the food is gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan or kosher, among other dietary restrictions. It also separates the “good” stuff from the “bad” stuff (labeled as “Get Enough” and “Avoid Too Much”) so you can see at a glance that an item has, say, a good amount of fiber, but a high amount of carbs.

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That’s tricky stuff! Nutrients aren’t quite so simple as “good” and “bad.” There are different kinds of sugars and different kinds of fats. “To get the initial data, we worked with (around) 20 dietitians who entered information for products that 1. they cover in consults with clients and 2. that they themselves eat and consider healthy options,” says Slover. Those dietitians helped make the decisions about how to treat those bits of data, but how personalized can it really be?

Sage’s big idea is to turn nutritional data into something almost akin to a personalized tracker, like MyFitnessPal. You plug in your height, weight, gender, and activity level, and it customizes a daily calorie count just for you, a definite leap forward from the FDA’s nutrition label, which assumes a 2,000 calorie-per-day quota for everyone. For now, the app has about 2,000 items, mostly healthy ones of the sort you’d find at Whole Foods, but the graphics, says Slover, are dynamically created, so new pages can be automatically created for any new items.

In the future, the team plans to update the mobile app so that it can scan any product and give you a Sage-ified alternate nutrition label. The app may not be perfect, but it certainly is more eye-catching and easier to read than the standard FDA label—and the platform shows promise for the future.

A Better Nutrition Label (And Fitness Guide, Kind Of)