A brief history of nutrition facts

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

Many other countries already include versions of this type of labeling on their food packaging. In Singapore, for example, drinks have a nutritional value letter grade, and across Europe, most processed food packaging includes a Nutri-Score grade. The grades A to F are intended to inform consumers about the total nutritional value of the food.

Nutrition labeling is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States, existing only in its current iconic black-and-white panel format for less than three decades. Adding nutrition facts to the front of the label was the first significant change in food labeling at that time.

However, this is hardly the first time that state and federal governments have attempted to influence consumer behavior towards healthier foods. In 2010, Congress passed a law requiring chain restaurants to display nutrition facts on their menus, although the results of this change in dietary choices were inconclusive. Some places have implemented disincentive pricing structures for less healthy foods, such as soda taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, although no state currently imposes these taxes.

FoodReady tapped into reports from the National Institute of Health and other historical resources to explore the history of nutrition labeling over the years.

From market-fresh ingredients to prepackaged convenience, the American diet is undergoing significant changes

In the early 20th century, there was little nutrition labeling on foods. With far fewer processed and packaged foods available, there was no need for labels. People usually bought fresh raw materials from markets and cooked them the same day.

It was in the mid-1800s that the Department of Agriculture was established and the only food regulations that emerged at the time. They were mainly limited to food handling and processing rules after many foodborne illness outbreaks. Although canned food had been available in the US since the late 19th century, it consisted mainly of raw ingredients and was not labeled with nutrition facts.

After the Second World War, the evolution of electrical kitchen appliances, including refrigerators and freezers, and the rise of large all-inclusive supermarkets, led more women and families to frozen, prepackaged and canned foods and whole meals.

By the 60s, as more women entered the workplace, the need for efficient, convenient family meals increased the demand for prepared foods. As more and more packaged and processed foods entered the market, consumers began to want more transparency about what they were buying and eating. In 1966, the USDA required companies to include ingredient lists on all products that entered interstate commerce—the first time ingredient lists were mandated on packaging.

Misleading claims and growing interest in nutrition are driving consumer calls for transparency

While ingredient lists gave consumers an accurate account of what was in the foods on grocery store shelves, companies were also adding false or misleading health claims to packaging.

Many claims that suggested heart-healthy or low-fat foods were either insufficiently researched or incorrect. To combat these misleading or harmful claims, the FDA established a new rule requiring companies that made health claims on their packaging or adding additional nutrients to also include the product’s nutritional information.

The rise of these demands coincided with a growing interest in diet and nutrition, which gained momentum in the 70s with the hippie-driven health food craze and continued to grow throughout the 80s. Gradually, consumers demanded more nutritional information.

Part of this new interest in the link between food and health came from the first publication of the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” in 1980, which included tips such as “Eat a variety of foods” and “Maintain ideal weight.” Later in the decade, more detailed reports and guidance on nutrition were published by the Surgeon General and the National Research Council, increasing mainstream awareness and curiosity about food and diet. The reports linked specific food components, such as trans and saturated fats, to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

With a focus on data and nutritional awareness, labels become more nuanced

In 1990, Congress gave the FDA the authority to require consistent food labeling on packaged foods under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. The new law also required these labels to be 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.

Over the next few years, the FDA made new rules and decisions in light of the emerging data and studies on various nutritional issues. Total trans fats were put on a separate line on labels after it was revealed that they affect low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, often called “bad” cholesterol. Deciding to list total sugars, rather than on a separate line for added sugars, since the body does not differentiate between sugars found naturally in fruit and sugars added afterwards.

Currently, nutrition labels include many of these same features, although the serving size is printed in bold, 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 to be somewhat effective: A 2019 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that labeling directs consumers to their ingredient intake and reduce certain content, including transients. fats and high levels of sodium.

How much will the FDA’s new front-of-pack labeling affect the habits of American food consumers? That remains to be seen.

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

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

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