A History of What Is Required on Food Labels and the Nutrition Facts Panel
See how laws and consumer trends around food labels and nutrition facts panels have evolved in the last 50 years.
1862: President Lincoln launches the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Chemistry, the predecessor of the Food and Drug Administration.
1906: The original Food and Drugs Act is passed. It prohibits interstate commerce in misbranded and adulterated foods, drinks and drugs.
1924: The Supreme Court rules that the Food and Drugs Act condemns every statement on a product’s label that may mislead or deceive, even if technically true.
1950: Oleomargarine Act requires prominent labeling of colored oleomargarine, to distinguish it from butter. (Yes, swindlers tried to sell folks cheap margarine in the guise of butter.)
1958: Food Additives Amendment enacted, requiring manufacturers of new food additives to establish safety. Manufacturers were required to declare all additives in a product.
1958: FDA publishes the first list of food substances and additives generally recognized as safe (GRAS).
1966: Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires all consumer products in interstate commerce to be honestly and informatively labeled, including food.
1980: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) publish the 1980 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines are to be updated every 5 years. In 1980 there were 7 simple guidelines. In 2005 there were 41 recommendations in a 71-page booklet!
1990: Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) passes. It requires all packaged foods to bear nutrition labeling and all health claims for foods to be consistent with terms defined by the Secretary of HHS. As a concession to food manufacturers, the FDA authorizes some health claims for foods. The food ingredient panel, serving sizes and terms such as “low fat” and “light” are standardized. This is pretty much the nutrition label as we know it today.
1994: Nutrition Facts panel, basic per-serving nutritional information, is required on most foods under the NLEA of 1990. Food labels are to list the most important nutrients in an easy-to-follow format.
1995: American Heart Association initiates a food certification program including AHA’s Heart-Check symbol to appear on certain foods. Criteria are simple—low in saturated fat and cholesterol, for healthy people over age 2. And a certification payment to AHA by the food manufacturer.
2002: The 2002 Farm Bill requires retailers provide country-of-origin (COOL) labeling for fresh beef, pork and lamb. After repeated debilitation and stakeholder pressures, the law finally went into effect only 7 years later, on March 16, 2009, and even then with many loopholes.
2003: Announcement made that FDA will require food labels to include trans-fat content. Labeling went into effect in 2006.
2003: The FDA announced plans to permit the manufacturers of food products sold in the United States to make health claims that are supported by less than conclusive evidence. From “significant scientific consensus” before a claim can be made, industry can now rely on “some scientific evidence” or “very limited and preliminary scientific research” to make a health claim. Opponents criticize it as opening the door to ill-founded claims. Advocates believe it will make more information available to the public.
2004: PepsiCo launches SmartSpot—designating the “more nutritious” of its products with an easy-to-spot symbol on the package front. Baked Doritos in. Fried Doritos out. The following year Kraft launches a similar initiative, called Sensible Solutions.
2006: Hannaford Supermarkets launches Guiding Stars, intended to help customers choose healthy foods. Foods are ranked 0 to 3 stars, with three stars awarded to most nutritious foods. Only 20% of the supermarkets’ stocked items are starred, but sales of these items increase by several percentage points.
2007: Kellogg’s launches Nutrition at a Glance. Front-of-package information includes daily percentage values for 6 nutrients. Mars, Inc. follows suit in 2009.
2008: NuVal announced—the nutritional value (NuVal) system scores food on a scale of 1 to 100. The higher the NuVal Score, the higher the nutrition of a food product. The score is based on a complex and patent-pending Overall Nutritional Quality Index (ONQI) that takes into account 30 different nutrients.
2009: Giant Food, Stop & Shop, SuperValu and United Supermarkets all launch nutrition shelf signage for a portion of their products.
2009: Smart Choices launches formally with several hundred products labeled with the green checkmark. Froot Loops becomes the poster child for everything wrong with an industry-backed nutrition rating system.
2009: The FDA sends a “Dear Manufacturer” letter to Smart Choices and other front-of-pack nutrition rating programs, stating its concern with the potential to mislead consumers. A week later the Smart Choices program suspends itself.
2010: Whole Foods adopts ANDI Rating System, a new “Aggregate Nutrient Density Index” rating system for foods. Without much followup to this pilot, it seems to have fizzled away.
2010: The Institute of Medicine recommends only 5 values be displayed on front-of-pack labels: calories, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and added sugars.
2010: The USDA requires cuts of meat to display nutrition on the package as well, starting in March 2012.
2011: The Grocery Manufacturers Association announces Nutrition Keys (now called Facts Up Front), a new front- of-pack labeling system, just months before the FDA is to issue its guidance to industry on the matter. Preemption, anyone?
2012: Walmart launches its “Great for You” seal of approval. The standards are the most stringent to be seen from the food industry so far.