Nutrition as a Design Problem: The Food Score

A majority of Americans think eating healthier is more complex than filing their taxes. A Nielsen’s study shows that 59% of consumers have difficulty understanding nutritional facts on food packaging.

Twenty years ago, the FDA mandated comprehensive nutritional labels be placed on virtually every food package sold in stores. Yet rather than improving nutrition, the two decades since have coincided with the explosion of the obesity epidemic. With one in three American adults being obese, one can assume that the status quo emphasizing raw data simply isn’t working. Much of the attention during this period has been on managing quantity (calorie counting), but increasingly researching is showing that understanding the quality of each calorie is as important.

So what happened? We believe the core problem is a design problem. “Simply put, calculating and then comprehending the more than 15 individual numbers that impact nutrition, commonly found on food labels, is impossible and unintuitive for snap judgments we make when buying or ordering food. At Jawbone, we radically rethought the problem, and began tackling it by developing a simple, intuitive user experience.. The result was radical: creating a single, simple number that helps you find foods rich in healthy nutrients, like fiber and unsaturated fat, which promote bodily function and have been proven to protect against disease. We call it Food Score.


Today, there are more than 15 metrics on every nutrition label, which is overwhelming to most. Our mission with Food Score was not to replace the nutritional label, but to make the information much more digestible. Food Score takes those 15 numbers, analyzes them, then distills the information down to one easy-to-read number. While a single score sacrifices granularity and some personalization, the resulting simplicity makes it easy — and even fun — to eat well.  And with good design, it offers the opportunity to pull the user in to dig into the details and understand more deeply.

Take a look at these nutrition labels. See if you can guess which of these foods are healthy and balanced, or which Food Score corresponds to which label.

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The Food Score is not meant to replace a nutrition label. Instead, its practical design provides an easily understood metric regarding the the quality of your food. For every score, we calculate the key ratios of fiber to sugar, unsaturated fat to saturated fat, and protein to fat. UP also analyzes the overall amount of trans fat, sodium, cholesterol, potassium and calcium in your food. The score incorporates the USDA daily recommendations, dozens of clinical studies, and the input of leading nutritionists. In this case simple does not mean basic. In fact, creating simplicity requires an order of magnitude more engineering and design work.

To help simplify the information and put it in context, we assess the healthiness of the item on a scale of 1 to 10, calculated using the ratios described above, then label the item by color. We’ve implemented a basic green, yellow and red stoplight system for food quality, making it easier than ever to tease apart the foods loaded with healthy nutrients from those laden with disease-causing nutrients.

Perhaps the most gratifying part of releasing Food Score was hearing feedback from folks who were surprised to see that certain foods they considered “healthy” were actually anything but. Understanding whether or not a food is healthy can be made even more difficult once marketing comes into play. Shelves of items labeled “healthy” or “lite,” can make us believe something is healthy, but many of these items are packed with sugar. Because it’s difficult to interpret the numbers on a nutrition label, we read the “healthy” branding on the outside of the package and assume it to be true.

Sugar consumption, often cited as the biggest public health problem today, is only provided in grams. It’s a metric measurement that doesn’t mean anything to the average person, and is often found in items touted as “healthy” options. Certain reduced fat crackers have food scores of 4.5, foods like yogurt can be nutritionally destroyed with added sugar and jams ­— certain brands of strawberry yogurt have a Food Score of 4.0 — and while raw fruits can be very healthy, fruit juices (which contain no fiber) aren’t much healthier than soda. Case in point? An apple scores a 9.5. Apple juice scores a 2.

Good design can turn the frustrating experience of eating healthy into one that is easy and even fun. It also makes the real nutrition understandable, so consumers can trust the science and not the marketing. We believe it might be the most critical component to improving nutrition.


About The Author

Laura Borel

Laura is a Product Manager for Jawbone where she focuses on Nutrition and Weight Management for the UP system. She manages all nutrition aspects for the UP app to build ground breaking user experience.