Once an optional afterthought, the Nutrition Facts label has evolved into a trusted and necessary foundation of our lives. Read on to learn about the history of the label, or check out our free Nutrition Facts Label Changes Guide for the most recent changes to the label regulations.
Before the 1960s, most food products being sold were basic ingredients. Food was prepared in the home rather than sold prepackaged, so there was little need for nutritional labeling. Some foods marketed for those with special dietary needs included info about calorie count or sodium content on their labels, but these foods were seen as an exception.
During the 1960s, the amount of processed foods in the marketplace began to increase and manufacturers often made misleading claims about their products. Consumers were confused by marketing and worried about the trustworthiness of their food.
In response to this, the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health recommended that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) consider developing a system to identify the nutritional qualities of food. Such a system would allow consumers to follow recommended diets rather than eating blindly.
1973 saw FDA’s first nutrition facts label regulation: if manufacturers made a nutrition claim about the food on labeling or in advertising, or if nutrients were added to a food, then nutrition labeling was mandatory. If present, the label was required to include the following nutrients, presented in units per average or usual serving size:
- Number of calories
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Optional: Sodium, saturated fatty acids, and polyunsaturated fatty acids
Many of the nutrients were presented in units of percent U.S. Recommended Daily Allowances (U.S. RDAs). FDA used 1968 data from the National Academy of Sciences to calculate the highest Recommended Daily Allowance across gender and age groups for each nutrient. The majority of these U.S. RDAs (later renamed RDIs) were not replaced with more current scientific data until the most recent label changes in 2016.
Since FDA did not have jurisdiction over meat and poultry, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) developed comparable labeling for such single-ingredient products.
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA)
After 1973, scientific knowledge linking health and diet grew rapidly. Consumers looking to improve their health wanted more information on their food labels, and manufacturers responded with undefined claims such as “extremely low in saturated fat.”
FDA worked on proposals to improve food labeling, but was unsure if it had the regulatory power to require labeling on all foods. The Institute of Medicine, worried about the state of Americans’ dietary health, researched how content and presentation of food labels could help consumers make better choices.
The crisis reached a head in 1990. After years of discussion, Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA). This act gave FDA the authority to require nutrition labeling on most food packages, with voluntary labeling for raw fruits, vegetables, and fish. FDA was also given explicit control over health claims and nutrient level claims. The act gave FDA two years to enact final regulations.
The final version of the regulations was published in 1993. For the first time, nutrition labeling became mandatory on most packaged foods.
1. Standardized Labels: Required and Optional Nutrients
Labels were required to display levels of the following nutrients:
- Calories from fat*
- Total fat
- Saturated fat*
- Total carbohydrate
- Dietary fiber*
- Sugars* (The sum of all free mono- and disaccharides)
- Vitamin A*
- Vitamin C*
When those nutrients marked with an asterisk were present at insignificant amounts and no claim was made about them, instead of listing them on the label one could put a footnote at the bottom of the nutrient list stating “Not a significant source of “____” where “____” was the name of the nutrient(s) omitted.
To keep the label standardized, only certain nutrients were allowed on the label. The optional nutrients were:
- Calories from saturated fat
- Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids
- Soluble and insoluble fiber
- Sugar alcohols
- Other carbohydrates (the amount of carbohydrate remaining after subtracting the amount of dietary fiber, sugars, and sugar alcohols from the total carbohydrate)
- Any vitamins and minerals for which RDIs are established
2. Daily Values
At the time, FDA wished to use the most recent RDAs available from the National Academy of Science. However, Congress prevented this action. As a result, FDA changed the name of the 1968 U.S. RDAs to Recommended Daily Intakes (RDIs) to reduce confusion with the new RDAs and continued to use the 1968 data.
FDA also faced another challenge: Congress had bidden FDA to provide nutritional data in terms of suggested daily consumption rather than in quantities like grams which were confusing to consumers. While the micronutrients had been given Recommended Daily Allowances by the National Academy of Sciences, the macronutrients had no such guidelines. To address this, FDA used government health reports and scientific studies to create Daily Reference Values (DRVs) for the following nutrients:
- Total fat
- Saturated fatty acids
- Total carbohydrate
- Dietary fiber
No recommendations existed for sugar intake at the time, so no Daily Reference Value was created for sugar. Daily Reference Values were based on a daily intake of 2,000 calories.
3. Label Format
The research done by the Institute of Medicine on label layout then came into play. FDA worked with graphics experts, focus groups, and industry researchers to create a new label format that would emphasize the percent Daily Values as consistent units rather than each nutrient having its own units. After considering pie chart and graphical layouts, FDA eventually settled on a numerical label as the best option.
4. Serving Sizes
The NLEA stipulated that FDA display nutrition data per average serving. To do this, FDA used data from 1970 and 1980 USDA food consumption and intake surveys to create Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed (RACC) for categories of similar foods. RACC were then used as standards to determine serving size.
5. Label Claims
The NLEA also forbade manufacturers from making claims about the level of a nutrient present in a product unless they used terms that had been defined in regulations. FDA and USDA worked together to create definitions for commonly used characterizations such as “free,” “low,” “light,” “reduced,” “less,” “high,” “good source,” “more,” “fewer,” “lean,” and “extra lean.” They also defined “healthy” using the rationale that the “fundamental purpose of a ‘healthy’ claim is to highlight those foods that, based on their nutrient levels, are particularly useful in constructing a diet that conforms to current dietary guidelines.”
In the years that followed, new medical research emerged about trans fats, and in 1999 trans fats became required on the nutrition facts label. More recently in 2016, twenty-six years after the passage of the NLEA, FDA decided that it was time for another overhaul of the nutrition facts regulations.
Information about the history of the nutrition facts label comes from the National Academy of Sciences.