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  • Writer's pictureMaitreyee Patki

Nutri-Grade to sustainability - how label design can be a game changer

Ever since Singapore launched the ‘Nutri-Grade’ labels for drinks, I find myself spending a few extra seconds deciding on my drinks order.

Nutri-Grade is a mandatory labelling system for pre-packaged beverages. It ‘grades’ your drinks based on their sugar and saturated fat content with ‘A’ having the lowest levels, and ‘D’ the highest. The recommendation is to choose better by limiting Nutri-Grade C and D drinks. Source:


✔️ It’s certainly brought a ‘health’ angle to my decision making.

✔️ It’s made it more prominent and ‘front of mind’.

✔️ It’s made me actively reconsider choices, and even explore menus beyond my usual consideration set.

✔️ And the feel-good factor of picking a healthier drink, has acted as a strong positive reinforcement.


Now, I really don’t want to get a ‘D grade’, you know?


And all of this isn’t just happening in my head. A Duke-NUS lab trial showed that these labels indeed triggered a behaviour change with shoppers tending to opt for healthier options. What’s more, it has apparently also forced brands to reformulate their beverages to get a more desirable Nutri-Grade.


But why Nutri-Grade? Big problem, simple solution

Projections indicated that number of Singapore residents with diabetes could reach 1 million by 2050. High sugar intake, especially from sugary beverages was identified as a major contributing factor.


It sounds like a massive problem, getting an entire city-state to change behaviour, and adopt a healthier mindset to mitigate the looming diabetes crisis.


But this little tweak – adding a clear, simple, and visible label on the FOP indicating sugar and saturated fat content – has delivered impressive real-world impact.


The behavioural science and semiotics behind why Nutri-Grade works

  • Simplified decision making

Food labels can be notoriously complex, and packaging design semiotics carefully curated to connote health and fitness.

Can you spot the number of 'health' oriented cues in the design and copy of this pack? Bournvita - a chocolate malt drink by Cadbury in India, came under scrutiny for it's many misleading claims as a 'health' drink while having high sugar content.

In India, Revant Himatsingka has taken the packaged food and beverage industry by storm by teaching people how to read food labels better, and systematically unveiling those masquerading as healthy when in fact they are better categorised as junk.

Revant Himatsingka breaking down food labels for you


It's all so confusing, that even when you are a health-conscious shopper, actively looking to buy the healthiest option, the well-crafted marketing, ‘confuse and conquer’ labels, and design semiotics can throw you considerably off track.

In this context, the Nutri-Grade labelling, on FOP, designed as simply as ABCD, clearly readable, and communicative even at a glance thanks to its intuitive colour coding from green to red, makes a hell of a difference.


No longer do users need to pick up, flip, read, and decode complex tables on the BOP. One glance, without even picking the packs off shelf, and you know what’s better or worse for you. That’s a ton of effort saved at shelf!

  • Nudge

The label design subtly exercises influence on shoppers’ decision making. For instance, via the colours used. Grade A is a strong green, a colour that evokes positive associations with health, nutrition, and vitality. In contrast, grade D is a red, connoting caution, a warning, and generally less desirable attributes. And of course, the grades themselves. The A-B-C-D is reminiscent of performance grading – so if you have some trauma from getting that C grade in your school assignments, you are going to want to go for a better grade.


The labels essentially create a ‘rewarding’ feeling when you opt for a green over a red or amber, thereby reinforcing the desirable behaviour and encouraging you to repeat that behaviour in the future.


  • Anchoring effect

Anchoring effect refers to the tendency of individuals to rely heavily on the first piece of information they receive when making decisions. By mandating the placement of Nutri-Grade labels on the FOP rather than BOP, shoppers are invariably more likely to be influenced by the Nutri-Grade than to ignore it.


  • Social proof

The very simple fact that we as humans are highly influenced by social norms and peer behaviour. Nutri-Grade labels capitalise on this by signalling to you as to which products are healthier choices. Shoppers, owing to their need to adapt to societal expectations of health diets, would be more likely to opt for a better grade. And as much as you may want to indulge, you don’t want to be that person who orders an Oreo milkshake when the rest of your gang is opting for a healthier cups of black coffee.


Similar problem, different space

There’s a similarly big, looming crisis out there – plastic pollution. And akin to the confusing food labels in the food and beverage context, there are considerably confusing claims in this context too.


Back in 2020, for ESOMAR APAC, I co-authored a paper titled ‘Sustainability: Doomed if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t’, based on a meta-analysis of over 50 qualitative packaging design studies done on just this topic. In it, we highlighted problems in packaging design and communication of sustainability claims, and why these fail to co-opt shoppers, even when businesses have noble intents.


For instance, if wanting to make an environment friendly choice, should you opt for the pack that claims to be ‘eco-friendly’, or one that says it is ‘made from recycled plastic’, or one that says ‘100% recyclable’? Which is ‘the best choice’?


Did you know, the chasing arrows symbol does not always mean that the pack is recyclable? The little numbers inside the symbol are meant to indicate what is and is not recyclable; and not to say that any plastic with this symbol is recyclable. In fact, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) recommended to the Federal Trade Commission (US) to get rid of it, as it is 'deceptive or misleading'! 😳

Add to it the fact that these claims are variably placed on FOP, or BOP, prominently or in fine print, and in no standardised manner whatsoever. Which means the onus falls flatly on the shopper to take the effort to pick up a pack, scan it fully, find the claim, understand it, repeat this for other packs in consideration, evaluate options, and then act on it. A bit much, huh?


What’s more, most of these communications are ‘claims’ and not ‘calls to action’. That is to say that the packaging is a way for the business to communicate what they did, rather than what they want you to do, to really help the planet. For instance, what’s the right way to recycle a pack of milk versus a say a paper pack around a soap bar? One doesn’t really know too well.


Learning from the apparent success of the Nutri-Grade labels, can we look to make similar label design decisions that can make shoppers more environmentally conscious and nudge businesses as well to actively look at more environmentally friendly packaging options?


  • Regulatory bodies taking a clear stance on what constitutes environmentally friendly

Akin to how Nutri-Grade took a stance to say it focusses specifically on grading drinks based on sugar and saturated fat content i.e. it does not take into account vitamins, minerals, and other nutrient goodies.


While this does result in some imperfections – e.g. it makes full fat milk a grade C, and Coke Zero a grade B (damn!) – it is still a step forward in ensuring reduced sugar consumption among the population at large.


  • Developing a design language to communicate environmentally friendly packaging

Akin to Nutri-Grade’s simple ABCD grading, intuitive colour coding, and compact visual design, can we have a simplified and simple depiction of a pack’s environment friendliness score? For instance, a gradation or similar?

If businesses could come up with creative measures like a 'fairness meter' in context of fairness creams' efficacy, surely we can think of creative ways for issues more deserving of attention and simplicity!

  • Designing for people, not for regulatory bodies and to stave off lawsuits

Akin to Nutri-Grade that is on the FOP to make it easier for shoppers to see and is designed in a way that they will understand, ensuring that environment friendliness claims are also given due prominence and designed in a way that enables a lay person to make a better choice.


Clearly, there’s a lot more room for change – if only we are serious about making it happen. Nutri-Grade happened because regulatory bodies were serious about change, and found a way to make it happen.

But hey, if we can tackle diabetes, we can at least try to ‘save the earth’, right? 🌏






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