Chart junk from the USDA

If you know me at all in real life, you know I’ve been on board the eat-real-foods train since I started cooking for myself.  I care a lot about making informed decisions about the foods I eat and enabling others to make the best choices about what to eat.  Marion Nestle is one of my food heroes and her blog led me to the USDA’s recent report of how consumers use nutrition information labeling in restaurants and fast food places.

I was thoroughly unimpressed by the plots in their report.  After all, charts are often the most effective way to communicate data, especially exploratory comparisons like this study.  I looked to Howard Wainer’s “Dirty Dozen” ways to display data badly for the right words to describe some of these plots.


  • Label illegibly, incompletely, incorrectly, ambiguously:  After studying the plot for a while, I think I’ve figured out what’s going on.  My first question was what on earth are the numbers above the bars?  I’d guess that they’re grams of sugar intake, but the color legend seems to indicate that blue means no sugar and yellow means yes sugar.  But wait, who eats no sugar?
  • Change the scales mid-axis: This isn’t quite a change of measurement scale, but change of the survey sample mid-axis.  Take a look at the footnote and you’ll see that only people who answered yes to the first question are included in the second pair of bars, and the same goes for the second and third pairs of bars.  The side-by-side placement of the three pairs leads us to believe that we’re comparing different statistics for the same group of people, when in fact the people surveyed for subsequent questions are a subset of the earlier group.


  • Emphasize the trivial, ignore the important: Perhaps my confusion here ties back to the unclear numbers on top of the bars.  But to me, it seems pretty trivial – if the righthand 3 bars are supposed to represent people who ate at fast food restaurants more than 5 times per week, then why would you even include a bar to say that 98.3% go to fast food restaurants?  Why isn’t it 100%?  My eye is drawn to these taller blue bars, whereas I think what they meant to convey is in the green bars.

A bonus complaint: the titles!  The data was taken from NHANES, a national survey.  These plots display summary statistics from the survey group.  It’s one thing to make statements about the sample of people, but it’s another to use the sample to draw inferences about all Americans.  The titles seem to suggest that the data definitively tells us things about all Americans (e.g. Americans who go to fast food/pizza places have higher sugar intake).  Significance tests were done to say that these figures were different, but the methods aren’t transparent.  This is very misleading!

All told, the plots aren’t that bad.  They do have some interesting statistics in them (people in the survey on food stamps, now called SNAP, pay more attention to nutrition facts?) and make the information more easily accessible than giant tables of data.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s