Could a Simple Tweak Lead People to Shovel Less Sugar Into Their Faces?

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Americans eat way too much sugar — hey, our food tends to be laden with the stuff — and have seemed largely immune to public-health messages about how unhealthy this can be. Naturally, public-health types are hungry (sorry) for ideas that will lead people to cut back a bit.

In an article on the New York Times’ opinion blog, Tina Rosenberg runs down a new proposed bill in New York State that would slap a health warning onto soda cans about the drinks’ sugar content, as well as some of the adjacent discussions about how to nudge people toward healthier decisions.

Her article contains what feels like a simple, overlooked point:

In general, the [food] industry has been able to make nutritional labels as feeble and confusing as possible. It’s hard to tell what’s a little and what’s a lot.

And why are we talking about grams? “Americans use teaspoons,” said Jim O’Hara, the director of health promotion policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. “We’ve argued they should put it in teaspoons.”

The pro-soda tax argument that captured the Mexican public was called the “12 spoonfuls” campaign. One ad simply showed a soda with 12 teaspoons of sugar next to it. Another showed a hand offering a soda to a child, accompanied by text: Would you give your child 12 spoonfuls of sugar? Then why would you give him a soda?”

A television spot showed parents trying to get their disgusted sons and daughters to eat a bowl of sugar: A father makes helicopter noises as spoon approaches mouth, and a mother pleads “think about the starving African children.”

I don’t know about you, but I have a much easier time picturing a teaspoon than a gram. And when I think about the fact that a can of soda has 12 teaspoons of sugar … well, I feel a lot more sheepish about the one I had for lunch Tuesday.

Just because it feels like measuring in teaspoons would be more effective doesn’t mean it would, of course. A lot of failed behavioral-health interventions feel right, and any claim of this sort requires evidence. Still: There’s a straightforward case to be made that if we’re going to have nutritional labels, they might as well be written in a way that maximizes consumers’ understanding of what they’re putting in their bodies.