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Making your message simple is one way to help it stick in the minds of your customers. When your audience includes customers from around the world, being simple can be complicated.

McDonalds, as part of their push to promote nutritional awareness of their products, has launched new nutritional identity system for their products. Because McDonald’s is serving a global market – they chose to create ‘universal’ symbols for key nutrients.

You’ll find each food item labeled with these circular icons… on everything from the burger wrapper to the pie package.

Nutritional Graphs

Pictured left is the nutritional information for a McDonald’s hamburger (from their website It shows key nutritional elements (calories, fat, protein) as an icon, in total grams, and as a bar graph representing the daily recommended allowance of these elements in the daily diet.

I know all of this because the current McDonald’s tray liner has information to decode the symbols. Additionally… I took the time to visit the website. But, what happens when the McRib comes back and they change out the menu liners?

It is going to take time to learn these symbols – especially without a decoder. Universally recognizable symbols become that way over time and with use by many. They would catch on faster if these became the symbols all fast food/quick-service restaurants used.

Poor Design? Or Deliberately Vague?

My skeptical side says McDonalds isn’t worried that the icons aren’t easy to comprehend. Perhaps people won’t pay too close attention? Yet, they met their obligation to provide the information.

To the right included the graph for the nutritionally-worst burger presented on the the McDonald’s website and it doesn’t present as that unhealthy. (Although if the bar graph crosses the dotted line, it has surpassed 1/3rd of the daily allowance [more than a meal’s worth]).

While McDonald’s The website is hard to navigate, non-intuitive, presented in Flash (less universal access), and slow to load. Perhaps McDonald’s wants to have this information out there… But doesn’t necessarily want the information to be VERY easy to understand.

The Icons

Below are the nutritional icons, what they represent, and for context, the description provided on the McDonald’s Menu website.

Calories – Calories are the measure of how much energy you’ll get from eating your food and drink. They also measure how much energy you could burn up doing physical activity. Your body gets calories from protein, fat and carbohydrates.

Protein – Protein provides the building material for your body and is essential for repairing and rebuilding your muscles, organs, skin and bones. Sources of protein include meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, eggs and soya.

Fat – Fat provides energy, is part of every cell structure in our body, supplies essential fatty acids, helps us absorb vitamins A, D and E and helps food taste good. However, high intakes are not recommended. Sources of fat include for example butter, meat, vegetable and olive oils, nuts, seeds and oily fish.

Carbohydrates (Carbs) – Carbohydrates give your brain and your body the fuel to go about your daily activities. They include sugars (found in e.g. fruit, biscuits, drinks) and starch (found in e.g. potatoes, bread, pasta, and rice).

Sodium (Salt) – Salt is made up of sodium and chloride. A small amount of salt is crucial for maintaining fluid balance in your body, but an excess of salt is not recommended. Examples of food high in salt include canned sausage, cheese spread, smoked fish, Bouillon, salted nuts, and pickles.

Sugar – Total sugars include sugars that occur naturally in food (such as those found in fruit) and those added to food (e.g. cakes, biscuits, sweets and soft drinks). Sugars, together with starch, make up carbohydrates.

Saturated Fats – Saturated fats usually solid at room temperature and mainly come from animal sources such as meat, eggs and dairy products. A diet high in saturated fat can raise levels of bad cholesterol in the blood, so saturated fats should be eaten in moderation.

Fiber – Comes from various plant compounds (for example found in grains, fruit, vegetables and pulses), which are not absorbed by the digestive system. They help to keep the gut healthy.

In a related post about icons, I share with you the icon system that identifies movie ratings in the Netherlands. Making it easier for parents to know the content in rental movies.

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