1862 – 2014: A Brief History of Food and Nutrition Labeling

US Nutritional Fact Label

Updated: February 2014. Original version published November 2008.

In the early 13th century, the king of England proclaimed the first food regulatory law, the Assize of Bread, which prohibited bakers from mixing ground peas and beans into bread dough. Ever since, it has been a cat and mouse game between the food industry and the public (fast forward to China 2008 – cheap poisonous melamine in milk powder). In the US, food regulation dates back to early colonial times. Here is a brief overview of the last 150 years of government and industry food regulation:

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 mis-branded and adulterated foods, drinks and drugs.

1906 In the aftermath of “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair, which detailed the horrendous sanitary and working conditions in the meatpacking industry, the Meat Inspection Act is passed.

1924 The Supreme Court rules that the Food and Drugs Act condemns every statement, design, or device on a product’s label that may mislead or deceive, even if technically true.

1938 A revised and expanded Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FDC) Act of 1938 is passed. Highlights include: safe tolerances to be set for unavoidable poisonous substances, standards of identity, quality, and fill-of-container to be set for foods, and authorization of factory inspections.

1939 First Food Standards issued (for canned tomatoes, tomato purée, and tomato paste).

1949 FDA publishes guidance to industry for the first time, called “Procedures for the Appraisal of the Toxicity of Chemicals in Food,” (aka the “black book”)

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. Going forward, manufacturers were required to declare all additives in a product.

1958 FDA publishes the first list of food substances generally recognized as safe (GRAS).

1962 President Kennedy proclaims the Consumer Bill of Rights. Included are the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose, and the right to be heard.

1965 Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires all consumer products in interstate commerce to be honestly and informatively labeled, including food.

1971 Artificial sweetener saccharin, included in FDA’s original GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list, is removed from the list pending new scientific study.

1973 California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) is formed. Begins with 54 farmers mutually certifying each other’s adherence to its own published, publicly available standards for defining organic produce.

1977 Bowing to industry pressure, the Saccharin Study and Labeling Act is passed by Congress to stop the FDA from banning the chemical sweetener. The act does require a label warning that saccharin has been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

1980 Infant Formula Act establishes special FDA controls to ensure necessary nutritional content and safety.

1980 The USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center (FNIC) publishes the 1980 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines are to be updated every 5 years. In 1980 there were 7 relatively simple guidelines. In the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, there were 41 recommendations in a 71 page booklet!!!

1982 FDA publishes first “red book” (successor to 1949 “black book”), officially known as “Toxicological Principles for the Safety Assessment of Direct Food Additives and Color Additives Used in Food”.

1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) is passed.  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 Health and Human Services. 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.

1991 Nutrition facts, basic per-serving nutritional information, are required on foods under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. Food labels are to list the most important nutrients in an easy-to-follow format.

1995 Saccharin Notice Repeal Act repeals the saccharin notice requirements of 1977. People can get their saccharin without having to read about its risks.

1995 American Heart Association initiates a food certification program including AHA’s Heart Check Symbol to appear on certain foods.  Criteria is simple – low in saturated fat and cholesterol for healthy people over age 2. Oh and also, a certification payment to AHA by the food manufacturer. Now you know why sugary cereal is Heart Checked.

1998 Transfair, the US Fair Trade organization is established, with a mission “to build a more equitable and sustainable model of international trade that benefits producers, consumers, industry and the earth”.

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 would finally go into effect only 6 years later, on Oct 1, 2008, and even then with many loopholes.

USDA Organic Certificate

2002 The National Organic Program (NOP),  enacted. It restricts the use of the term “organic” to certified organic producers. Certification is handled by state, non-profit and private agencies that have been approved by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

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 on food labels which 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 Passage of the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act. Requires labeling of any food that contains one or more of: peanuts, soybeans, cow’s milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, and wheat.

2004 PepsiCo launches Smartspot – designating the “more nutritious” of its products with an easy to spot symbol on the front of package. Baked Doritos in. Fried Doritos out.

2005 Kraft launches Sensible Solutions, a similar initiative for its gamut of products including sugar-free Jello, vitamin water, and Nabisco toasted chips.

2005 President’s Choice launches Blue Menu to designate its healthier products.

2006 Hannaford Brothers Supermarket Chain 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 supermarket stocked items are starred, but sales of these items increase by several percentage points.

Sept 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 *top secret* Overall Nutritional Quality Index (ONQI) that takes into account 30 different nutrients in food. [update: read review]

Oct 2007 Kellogg’s Launches Nutrition at a Glance based on the European Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) system. Front of Package information includes daily percentage values for 6 nutrients: calories, total fat, sodium, sugars, vitamin A, and vitamin C.

Oct 2008 Mars International launches GDA labeling of its foods and snacks in the US.

Oct 2008 Smart Choices launched – a pan industry effort to promote a standardized benchmark for front of package consumer information. Initial supporters include General Mills, Con-Agra, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Unilever. [update: read review]

January 2009 Healthy Ideas launched at Giant Foods and  Stop & Shop supermarkets. Around 10% of the items qualify for this benchmark, developed by the grocers’ nutrition experts and based on FDA and USDA guidelines.

January 2009 Sara Lee introduces Nutritional Spotlight front of package labels for bread, bun, and bagel products. This move is in contrast to an industry wide attempt by manufacturers to create a unified Smart Choice label. This label is similar to Mars’ and Kelloggs’ recent efforts.

January 2009 SuperValu introduces nutritionIQ shelf signage at its Albertsons stores. The color-coded, easy-to-spot shelf tags, or cards, are supposed to aid shoppers in choosing low fat, high fiber and other good foods.

January 2009 Regional Grocery Chain, United Supermarkets, Introduces TAG Nutrition Labeling Program. Five color coded shelf labels point to Heart Healthy/Diabetes Management, Gluten-Free, Organic, Lean/Low-Fat for Meat and Dairy and Sugar-Free/Reduced Sugar products.

Tag Labeling

Tag Labeling

June 2009- SuperValu introduces Healthy Elements program for its independent retail partners.

Summer 2009 – Smart Choices launches formally with several hundreds of products labeled with the green check mark. Froot Loops becomes the poster child for everything wrong with an industry backed nutrition rating system.

October 2009 – The FDA sends a “Dear Manufacturer” letter to boards of the Smart Choices Program and other Front of Pack nutrition rating systems, stating its concern with the potential to mislead consumers. A week later the Smart Choices program suspends itself.

January 2010 – Whole Foods Adopts ANDI Rating System – a new rating system for foods. There wasn’t too much follow-up to this pilot and it seems to have fizzled away.

October 2010 – The Institute of Medicine recommends only 4 nutrients be considered when preparing front of pack labels: Calories, Saturated Fat, Trans-Fat and Sodium.

December 2010 – The USDA requires cuts of meat to display nutrition as well, starting in January 2012.

January 2011 – The Grocery Manufacturers Association announces Nutrition Keys, a new front-of-pack labeling system, just months before the FDA is to issue its guidance to industry on the matter. Preemption anyone?

February 2011 – Safeway announces Simple Nutrition shelf tags, boasting 22 colorful encouragements for people to buy more, not less foods.


September 2011 – The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association renames Nutrition Keys (See January 2011) as Facts Up Front, allocating a $50 million budget to promote this initiative and preempt any regulatory ruling on the matter.

February 2012 – Wal-Mart Launches it’s “Great for you” Seal of Approval. The standards are the most conservative to be seen from the food industry so far.

Wal-Mart Great for You Seal

February 2014 – The FDA proposes sweeping changes to the nutrition facts label with a focus on calories, updated serving sizes that reflect true consumption, and a requirement to state the amount of added sugars separately from naturally occurring sugars.

What’s next for food labels? Consumers interest groups will continue to demand more visibility and more information from manufacturers. More data will become available, but translating the wealth of information to a decision at the supermarket shelf will not necessarily become easier for consumers. Programs such as Guiding Stars and NuVal may help consumers make better decisions, but with the FDA’s renewed interest and vigor, perhaps we shall see a uniform, standardized format on all products in the not too distant future.

Visionaries see a day where each ingredient of every product on a shelf can be connected directly to the farm, factory, and other stakeholders involved in its processing. Now how do you fit all that information on a pack of gum?

Sources: FDA, USDA, AHA, company and organization websites

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  • http://vitamin.morewrite.com/2008/10/24/choosing-the-best-nutritional-supplements/ Best Nutritional Supplements

    Since we are left to decipher all these nutrition labels, it’s no wonder Americans are confused, deceived and ultimately obese. Best Nutritional Supplements

  • Helen

    The food industry has alot to answer for. However, it is something our society has created over the years, that is, WE have actively encouraged and accepted the status quo of big business feeding us food designed to make huge profits. If we can recognise that fact when we go to the store and not be blinded by smoke and mirrors (packaging!), keep it simple and unprocessed, but moreover get EDUCATED on nutrition, then there may be some hope in the future of changing something that is not working (our modern diet). Thank you for your blog, it is a great resource.

  • http://www.littlestomaks.com/about/ TwinToddlersDad

    Very informative post. Thank you.
    I think that there is a great need to simplify the food labeling because it is not working. Childhood obesity is on the rise even though all the information is available on the food labels.
    Recently I came across an interesting food labeling system based on a traffic lights style of color coding. It appears that it is being used in the UK and Australia. Even though it is not perfect, it seems quite simple and easy to understand. I wrote a post about it on my blog


    What are your thoughts about this system?

  • T. Miller

    The best way to avoid labeling confusion is to buy food rather than “edible foodlike substances” (to quote Michael Pollan). Fruits and vegeatbles require no labeling. Also, buy as much as you can from your local farmers, either at farmers’ markets, retail markets that carry local food, or direct from the farmer. There are many sources these days for finding local foods: localharvest.org and Buy Fresh, Buy Local are two of them. When you buy meats and produce from the person who raised or grew it, you know exactly what you are getting — no label required. When you must venture into the perimeter of a supermarket, ignore the packages that shout out at you that they are “heart healthy” contain “no trans fats”, etc. and focus on the ingredients. More than a small handful? Put it back on the shelf. Ingredients you can’t define or pronouce? Put it back on the shelf. Ingredients like: 100% rolled oats? Buy it.

  • Debbie

    I have had to learn to read labels, because of our son’s serious reaction to sucralose. I have been learning, one food ingredient at a time, everything that those fancy words mean. The more I learn, the more I make homemade foods from scratch. My god the junk they put in food is just appauling. Yes, I am a full time working mom with little time to do this, but I have to find the time in order for my kids to eat healthier. My best meals are when we eat food that has NO labels. Just fresh food, and even that is a challenge with all the pesticides and such. If I don’t know whats in it, I just won’t buy it.

  • Jennifer

    Debbie hit it right on. I have juvenile diabetes and Celiac Sprue (allergy to gluten) BUT, believe me I can’t even rely on labeling that says gluten free (and I’ve written letters to manufacturers about it). Educate yourselves! Allergies or not, it is your health! Once you educate yourself (and seriously, take a Foods 241 class at any community college) or just spend some time really looking at that label, you will figure it out. T. Miller – right on – “if you can’t pronounce it put it back”. And for all of you who are busy? I work full time (40+ hours a week) and I’m a full time student in college (18 credit hours). I can cook a decent dinner in about the same time you can mic yours…. but mine tastes better. Excuses may work for your doctor, but they don’t convince your heart, or any other part of your body.

    • JoeD

      Don’t worry, the government will make it so none of us have to educate ourselves. Won’t the world be a better place!? (sarc)

  • http://herbalwater.typepad.com/ Dr. Ayala

    Terrific post!

    The one date I’d add is 1994- the passage of The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA)

    This is the act that opened up the possibility for health and structure/function claims on food labels, and led to the proliferation of functional foods and health claims we see today.

  • http://www.michelleofried.org Michelle O. Fried

    In revising food labeling requirements, I would like to suggest that consideration be taken to the fact that often US labeling requirements become world-wide standards. As a public health nutritionist working in Ecuador, it would be very useful that more than the four common micronutrientes be listed. Zinc is currently a micronutrient in short supply, for example, in many countries, for example.

    In revising labeling requirements let´s consider the need for information in countries other than the US in determining what goes on the label.

  • http://nytimes.com MonIca

    I think that having the number of fat calories listed across from the total number of calories in a serving is very necessary. Many people base their food choice on it. So, while I like the idea of changing the food label for eassier reading; I would keep this information, thereby making it easy for the consumer to make a quick calculation as to whether or not to eat that particular food.

  • http://wellnessforallnow.blogspot.com/ Janice Epstein

    This is fabulous! This is such a clear picture of the fact that citizens have had to tell industry- every step of the way -that we want safety, correct information, choice, and the right to be heard (to refer to Kennedy’s Consumer Bill of Rights).

    Seriouosly, what would be so hard about just providing us with what we want? I don’t think I am wrong to say that most people would pay for modest increases in price, especially if it were couched in “for your health” marketing. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I think what is lacking is will.

  • Jessica

    When was it manufactures started adding fortified vitamins to their foods?

    • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Editorial Staff

      @Jessica – In the 1920′s

  • josef

    Your wrote: “Now how do you fit all that information on a pack of gum?” I wrote about this at: http://wp.me/psHIY-39 “Toward a Consumer Product Information Resource”. This was my, possibly naive, thoughts on the subject. Now I’m working on a follow up on how to make that information usable by a consumer at the point of purchase. Btw, Your blog is well done and provides a great service. This post on the history of food labeling is amazing. Searching for this type of information on the web was and still is difficult.

  • http://www.ItsaMustRead.com Alicia

    But still the labels don’t correspond at all to the food pyramid! I’d like to know how many servings of grain, vegetable, protein, fat are in each item (and/or what percent of an average daily allotment). That’s the only way you can have a properly rounded diet. Otherwise it’s too easy to eat the same well-scored ingredients (with different packaging and taste) over and over, ignoring other nutritional needs.

    The labels that bothers me most are breakfast.
    1) Something with very little fibre should not be allowed to call itself “cereal”. Cereal should have CEREAL (oats, wheat, etc) as its main ingredient, or call itself “breakfast dessert” or something.
    2) Serving size should be standardized by weight, not volume. A cup of air-filled “sugar bombs” is only 23g, which wouldn’t satisfy anyone. With only 23g, it’s easy to come in at 120 calories. Fifty grams is a much more reasonable serving amount.
    3) This is the one food that huge numbers of people call a meal by itself. Cereal boxes should tell us what we need to make the meal complete. People should be educated that they should, for example, always eat a piece of fruit with (or on) their cereal.

  • Sel Chung

    anyone know who determines and studies the food in product to figure the nutrition facts and amount? such as, if a product says 130 calories and 2 grams of fat… who did these tests to determine that it is in fact 130 calories in each serving?, is it the usda government or is it the company, or an outside laboratory/agency?

    • Jaggstinny

      @Sel Chung
      It is most likely the company that does the testing, and there is way you can test food for calories. My chemistry class is just getting done with a lab where we take different food groups (such as peanuts, cashews etc.) and place them in some sort of dish (we did the bottom of a pop can wrapped in foil) and place a beaker or glass with water in it on top. Then wrap the whole thing in foil, leaving air holes, and a “window” to get to your food.(make sure the window is wide and tall enough to stick a candle lighter through)
      Get a thermometer and measure the water temperature (in Celsius), record (also record how much your beaker or glass weighs in grams, your dish, and measure the water in grams. Save yourself the math 1mL=1gram.) Then, measure the weight of the food and record. Place it in your dish, and light it on fire. Wait until it stops burning, then record the water temp. Then re-weigh your food and subtract your burnt weight from original weight (i.e.: .88g-.24g=.64g) Once you have that all recorded, Take the mass of the water x 4.184(the specific heat of water) x the change in your water temp (hot – cold). Divide that by 4.184. Then divide that answer by 1000. The last step is to divide the answer you just got by your burnt weight. That will give you how many calories per gram of the food you chose. In example: 95.4 x4.164 x 15.1= 6027.22/ 4.184= 1440.5/1000= 1.44/.24= 6 Calories per gram. It may seem complicated, but it really isn’t. Hope this helps!

  • http://www.oscilloscopelab.com Oscilloscope :

    the food pyramid always calls for low carb and high protein diet but ease up on dairy products as well~”`

  • bananaslug

    Food Bank issue fillers are pretty sad. Get the soy out of everything. If you can afford it, like if you have a job, then don’t eat anything unless you can grow it, pick it, or kill it.

  • Darin C

    This post was very well done. Thank you for sharing.

  • Darin C

    This post was very well done. Thank you for sharing.

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  • rick

    Does anyone know if there is a food label archive? 

  • Goldeneagle102690

    does anyone know a link to find the history of a nutrient? which is Iron. if you do post it please…

  • Braiden174banned

     http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09356.html   here you go

    • Goldeneagle102690

       thank you so much it helped

      • Braiden174banned

         you very welcome

  • Prasad Mothadaka

    Every consumer has right to access to safe and nutritious choice of food worth his/her expenses incurred. This type of information helps the readers to understand how the same evolved in due course of centuries/decades of effort

  • saammirza

    Development of world economy has brought the battle between nature and human to the very front.
    For now it might appear that Human, Inc. is winning the b…..Lean Manufacturing Certification.

  • Molly Holtman

    This was a really interesting to read how far we have gone in regards to display and promotion of nutritional values on our grocery items. I wish ALL items had the ‘facts up front’ labeling, but a lot still don’t. When I see a “good for you’ like sticker, it doesn’t make me feel any better about the product-that determination seems to be relative in my experience at the grocery store.

  • Melissa in Virginia

    Great information. Thank you!

  • Brendon

    Great information! Thank you. Just wondering how credible is it? Can you share your exact sources?

  • JoeD

    “The Jungle…which detailed the horrendous sanitary and working conditions in the meatpacking industry.” No, it didn’t. Sinclair’s book was a work of fiction. The facts are that the meat industry was already inspected by government inspectors at the time of Sinclair’s book. The change that occurred was that the taxpayer was now going to pay for the inspections rather than the meat industry. It is also interesting to note that neither of the meat-packing facilities listed in Sinclair’s book had any violations against them from the government inspectors.

  • Rachelle G NTI Data

    A very good read article. Many people nowadays are not fully aware with histories and all that. Thanks for exerting an effort in compiling these information’s at one piece. I will definitely share this and recommend. – http://www.ntidata.com/