Visualizing Nutrition

Visualizing Nutrition

Three weeks ago, the USDA unveiled its replacement for the much-pilloried food pyramid, inciting a spate of mixed reviews. Most nutritionists seemed pleased that green veggies now dominate the color-coded dinner plate. Others felt that the Big Dairy scored the biggest win, with a fat glass of milk stamped onto the main course. Politically minded writers commented that the new icon will be little more than that — iconic — without major reforms to government policies that currently make a cup of Froot Loops cheaper than a cup of fruit.

Still, most everyone agreed that design-wise, is a vast improvement over its predecessor. A simple dinner plate carved up into quadrants according to nutritional categories replaces the jumbled smorgasbord of food dumped at the base of an oddly Everest-like pyramid.

There is still vast room for improvement, though, and we think Lonely Datum does the USDA one better with Visualizing Nutrients in Bite Size, an interactive graphic that allows viewers to explore 150 nutrients for more than 5,000 foods.

A word cloud serves as the entry point to the digital library of nutrients.

Each nutrient's profile shows what kinds of foods — in categories ranging from vegetables and poultry to baked goods and fast food — contain that particular nutrient, and in precisely what quantities. Here, for instance, is the profile for beta carotene:

And here is the profile for sodium:

The beauty of this visualization is its clean, logical organization. On each nutrient's profile page, we get a wiki-style snippet of information ("Beta carotene is a carotenoid substance naturally found in plants that serves as an accessory to photosynthesis.") and a list of the Top 8 foods that contain it (sweet peppers, chives, parsley, sweet potatoes, carrots, shallots, and spices).

Below that is a list of all the food categories that contain a given nutrient, in descending order of importance. Within each category, horizontal bars arranged from longest to shortest represent specific foods. And finally, hovering over these bars draws up the detailed nutritional information: For example, on beta carotene's page, hovering over vegetables reveals that the longest bar, dried sweet red peppers pack a whopping 42, 891 micrograms of beta carotene per 100 grams. (A helpful cyan tag tells us the recommended daily intake is 625 micrograms.)

Another fascinating feature of this visualization is its "Energy" pages, available in both Kilocalories and Kilojoules. Each is effectively a weight-watchers' guide for some 5,000 different foods, with the longest horizontal bars representing the most calorie-laden foods in each category and the shortest bars the least. Among Legumes, for instance, peanut spread weighs in at 650 kcal per 100 grams, while on the opposite end of the spectrum, fat-free soy beverage, has a mere 28. Under Fast Foods, cinnamon & sugar nachos top the chart while salad with no dressing (no surprise here) brings up the dietary rear.

Encyclopedic graphics like these, we imagine, could easily make for iPhone and Android apps that customers could reference while grocery shopping. Looking for a good source of potassium? Throw parsley, radishes, and tea into your cart. (Cream of tartar is a good source too, though presumably 100 grams of leavening agent is harder to swallow than 100 grams of radish.) Watching your salt, but have a craving for creamy? Skip the cheddar cheese (the longest bar in the Sodium > Dairy row) in favor of whipped cream or buttermilk (the shortest).

Of course, visualizations — even lucid ones like these — aren't going to solve the structural problems that make nachos doused in cinnamon and sugar cheaper and easier to find than beta carotene-rich bell peppers for too many people in too many communities across the US (see this searchable visualization of Food Deserts). Nor will they tackle the agricultural subsidies that heavily favor meat and dairy, even while the government serves up a new icon full of greens. But if knowledge is power, then tools like these are a boost of adrenalin for those who desire more fundamental changes to the way food in America is sown, grown, distributed, and consumed. And that would be a major step towards making "ChooseMyPlate" a bona fide choice.


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