A Brief History of Nutrition Facts

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The Food and Drug Administration is likely to propose adding nutrition facts to the front of packaged foods for the first time. The change, expected to be announced in the coming months, will be the latest in the consumer-driven evolution of nutrition labeling. It comes as heart disease, a diet-related disease, remains the leading cause of death in the U.S.; a new study published in the journal Neurology links ultra-processed foods to negative outcomes for brain health.

Many other countries already have versions of this type of labelling on their food packaging. In Singapore, for example, drinks have a nutritional value letter grade, while across Europe a similar Nutri-Score grade appears on most processed food packaging. Grades A through F are intended to alert consumers to the overall nutritional value of the food.

Nutrition labeling is a relatively recent phenomenon in the U.S., having existed in its current iconic black-and-white panel format for less than three decades. The addition of nutrition information to the front of the label would mark the first substantial change in food labeling in that time.

However, this isn’t the first time that state and federal governments have attempted to influence consumer behavior toward healthier foods. In 2010, Congress passed a law requiring restaurant chains to list nutritional facts on their menus, though the results of this change in dietary choices have been inconclusive. Some localities have imposed disincentive pricing structures for less healthy foods, such as soda taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, though no states currently levy such taxes.

FoodReady delved into reports from the National Institute of Health and other historical sources to examine the history of nutrition labeling over the years.

From fresh market ingredients to ready-made, convenience foods, the American diet is undergoing drastic changes

In the early 20th century, food products had virtually no nutritional labels. With far fewer processed and packaged foods available, labels were unnecessary. People generally bought raw ingredients fresh from the market and cooked them the same day.

The only food regulations at the time came in the mid-1800s with the creation of the Department of Agriculture. They were limited primarily to regulations on food handling and processing in the wake of many outbreaks of foodborne illness. Although canned foods were available in the U.S. beginning in the late 1800s, they were primarily a supplement of raw ingredients and were not labeled with nutrition facts.

After World War II, more and more women and families came into contact with frozen, refrigerator and frozen food. This was due to the rise of large, all-in-one supermarkets. This allowed them to buy more and more frozen, pre-packaged and canned food and complete meals.

In the 1960s, as more women entered the workforce, the need for efficient, convenient family meals drove the demand for prepared meals. As more and more packaged and processed foods entered the marketplace, consumers began to want more transparency about what they were buying and eating. In 1966, the USDA required companies to list ingredients on all products in interstate commerce. This was the first time that ingredient lists were required on packaging.

Misleading claims and growing interest in nutrition are driving consumers to demand transparency

While ingredient lists gave consumers an accurate picture of the contents of foods in the supermarket, companies also added false or misleading health claims to packaging.

Many claims that foods are heart-healthy or low-fat were not supported by sufficient research or were simply untrue. To combat these misleading or harmful statements, the FDA instituted a new rule that companies that make health claims or tout additional nutrients on their packaging must also include the product’s nutrition information.

The rise of these claims coincided with an increased interest in diet and nutrition, which gained momentum in the 1970s with the hippie-driven health food craze and continued to grow into the 1980s. Consumers increasingly demanded more nutritional information.

Part of this new interest in the link between food and health came with the publication of the first-ever Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 1980, which included tips such as “Eat a Variety of Foods” and “Maintain an Ideal Weight.” Later in the decade, more detailed reports and guidelines on nutrition were published by the Surgeon General and the National Research Council, increasing public awareness of and curiosity about food and diet. The reports linked specific components of food, such as trans and saturated fats, to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

With the focus on data and diet awareness, labels are becoming more nuanced

In 1990, Congress gave the FDA the authority to require consistent nutrition labeling on packaged foods under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. The new law also required that these labels be placed in the context of a daily diet, with serving sizes that reflected typical portion sizes. The label had to include the number of calories, as well as the amount of fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, protein, and specific vitamins and minerals.

In the years that followed, the FDA created new rules and regulations in light of new data and research on various nutritional issues. Total trans fats were added to a separate line on labels after it was discovered that they affect low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, often called “bad” cholesterol. The decision was made to list total sugars instead of a separate line for added sugars because the body does not distinguish between naturally occurring sugars in fruits and sugars that are added afterward.

Currently, nutrition labels include many of these attributes, though serving sizes are bolded and there is now a separate line for added sugars, among other minor changes. As an educational tool for consumers and a guideline for the food industry, nutrition labels have proven somewhat effective: A 2019 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that labeling encourages consumers to reduce their intake of certain ingredients and contents, including trans fats and high sodium levels.

How much impact will the FDA’s potential new front-of-package labeling have on the habits of American food consumers? That remains to be seen.

Story editing by Alizah Salario. Additional editing by Kelly Glass. Editing by Kristen Wegrzyn.

This story originally appeared on FoodReady and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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