Conventions (and Disrupting Conventions) on Nutritional Labels

The nutrition facts label. A familiar sight, and a cause of angst for so many people. 

Under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), most foods that you buy in grocery stores are required to have nutritional labels; notable exemptions include produce items. 

These labels, found on anything from oatmeal to canned beans and oreos, are highly standardized. In academic writing, conventions describe “the accepted standards of various elements…such as paper format, voice, tone, diction, and citation style.” Nutritional labels are a fantastic example of the role conventions play outside of an academic context. 

Nutritional labels are required to list the various nutrient values for one serving of the product, including calories, a fat breakdown, a carbohydrate breakdown, cholesterol, sodium, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron. The labels also calculate “daily value percentages” of these nutrients based on FDA nutritional guidelines. There doesn’t seem to be much that can be changed on the labels, save for the actual numbers displayed in each category based on the product. 

In academic writing, conventions can feel like a monolith: to be taken seriously, you have to follow certain stylistic rules. But, there can be ways to stray from the rules that are beneficial. This is also true in the realm of nutritional labels (and I’m just talking about the nutrition facts box, not any external claims or labels like organic, gluten-free, etc.)

Take the nutrition label for a package of Dulse, one of my favorite kinds of seaweed. 

One of the first things you may notice about the label is the blue: the “Nutrition Facts” title and the lines around and within the box are not the traditional black. It probably depends on the person, but I’d say the light color makes the label a bit less frightening and monotonous. Another remarkable difference between this label and one that follows conventions more strictly is the list of nutrients at the bottom. Although they are unrequired, this list includes iodine, riboflavin, vitamin B6, Chromium, Magnesium, and Vitamin B12 – showing off the nutritional powerhouse that dulse is. 

You may have noticed certain elements are missing from where they usually are on the label: saturated fat, cholesterol, Vitamin D, among others. Instead, underneath the rather lengthy list of nutrients that are present, in small print, is the line “Not a significant source of: calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sugars, vitamin A, vitamin C, or calcium.” These changes are allowed by the FDA and produce a simplified label that focuses attention on what may be seen as the “healthy” aspects of the product. These ways that the dulse flakes disrupt conventions of nutrition facts are somewhat common among a certain niche of products marketed as “health foods.” In this way, while breaking general conventions of food labels, this product does adhere to another, but much more exclusive, set of conventions.

Thus, even on nutrition facts labels, there is room for creativity – to make the argument pop out. That said, when you go grocery shopping, please be wary that sellers aren’t breaking too many of these conventions. 

– Joe Himmelfarb, ‘24