This post of part of a series exploring the food environment using the Reasonable Person Model. Check out my guest post on Your Registered Dietitian, and visit the final post
over on

Grocery display in Helsinki, courtesy of author Marcela via Wikimedia Commons.

Food labels can either be a blessing or a bane. They offer us (usually) helpful information but, too often, it’s obscured by marketing bling. Reasonable Person Model (RPM) offers a frame for examining labels. RPM suggests that we humans have certain needs: information gathering and exploration, being effectively focused, and taking meaningful actions. When these needs are met, we are essentially happier, more pleasant people who do a better job of living meaningful, productive lives. In this post, we’ll take a look at the structure of food labels and then evaluate how they might meet your needs per RPM.

First, what’s on a food label? There’s quite a bit required by law in the US but companies have plenty of design autonomy. The product, ingredients, the weight/amount, the company’s contact info, a nutrition facts label, and allergens are obvious required items. Other things may be required for certain products or in selected states, and even more label parts are voluntary. Legally, there are some terms (i.e. “organic”) that have specific production requirements. One of the challenges with labeling is to differentiate your product, which can lead to loud and cluttered labels that are, well, exhausting and distracting. Explore some labeling issues visually here.

The point of a label is to communicate information, right? According to RPM, one of the major challenges we face with our information-intense environment is filtering out the important bytes from the noise and developing a mental map of the patterns of how things fit together. For a food label, you might have an idea of where you find the size of the package, for example, or where to find possible allergens. If you’ve ever struggled to find instructions for how to heat something merely to find them in tiny print on the bottom of the package, you’ve had the experience of your mental map not aligning with reality. I’d bet you a cup of coffee that you were not a happy person during that search. A well-constructed label would enable your access to important information, like how to cook the food. Poorly designed loud or distracting labels not only hinder your access to information, but they can also become mentally fatiguing, decreasing your focus.

All this mental work of collecting all this information and organizing it in your mental maps leads to action. As we evolved, that action may be been to gather the edible fruits or run from the predator with sharp talons. However, in today’s food environment, most of us take action in different ways. Anyone who manages a restricted diet must gather information from labels to decide what is best to eat, whether that is focused on a nutrient, like limiting sodium, or a food, like avoiding shellfish. A good label enables people to make decisions and take action based on their health and culinary criteria.

Certain features draw important info to your attention while others distract and fatigue your mind. For example, a certain milk company suddenly put a picture of a baby/toddler on their milk cartons. The baby overwhelms more basic info like what type of milk. Key features to highlighting important info:

      • DO use large bright fonts for key product info only
      • DO use images of the food
      • DO use headers or signposts like “Cooking Directions” to help people navigate labels
      • DO provide links to outside resources (e.g. a website with recipes
      • Do NOT use overly small font
      • Do NOT hide the product behind too much marketing bling.

To summarize, RPM-compliant labeling draws the focus to the food using appropriate fonts and design features and encourages learning while avoiding distraction and information obstruction. The better they do that, the better their grade. Check out this Pinterest board to see how I graded food labels, and join me in grading labels on Twitter, using #RPM!

RPM Label Grading Rubric

For all of us, the food environment can be overwhelming. We face a cacophony of brightly colored processed items, often with less important information in small letters or on the back of the package. Or even the bottom of the package. While some people follow the philosophy of focusing on eating foods without labels, labels should not be banned and they should encourage selection of healthful foods. RPM is one potential framework for evaluating and, hopefully, improving labels.