At various points in time, people have put a lot of energy into counting calories and tracking their protein, fat, sodium, sugar, and carbohydrate intake. Many people have taken it to a much deeper level, tracking the vitamins and minerals they consume, too. One of the key tools they’ve used to do this is the nutrition labels on foods. Although I was quite familiar with the label already, when I used a food tracking app earlier this year, I encountered them left and right. Then, when I wrote about plant-based milks, I realized that each label always contained the same elements! I wanted to learn more about the origins of the label and what each section on it meant. Here’s what I learned:
How did the idea for the label start?
It’s funny that this thought had never occurred to me until just now. At one point, food packages had no nutrition labels. I guess when you’re growing the food you eat and preparing everything from the core ingredients, there was nothing to label. So what prompted the development of the label? A 2010 report published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) web site provides a great history on the development of the label. In a nutshell, the labels were developed in response to two main factors. People switched eating habits away from cooking with basic ingredients to eating more and more processed foods.
Second, people began to better understand that their diet affected their health. Therefore, they started to demand more information about what they were eating. In response to the consumer demand for more information, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) worked with nutritionists, consumer groups, and the food industry. Together, they developed the first version of what is today’s nutrition facts label. That label was available for use in 1972.
At the time, adding it to processed food packaging was voluntary and it really didn’t have a standard format. I believe it just specified what basic information to include. Then, two reports on the impact of nutrition and health came out. One from the Surgeon General in 1988 (The Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health). Another came from the National Research Council in 1989 (Diet and Health: Implications for Reducing Chronic Disease Risk). These reports suggested how different diets could help improve health and reduce chronic disease. The catch was that to use the recommendations in the reports, consumers had to understand what nutrients and amounts were in the foods and beverages they were ingesting.
The current approach to the nutrition label was not good enough; a standardized, easier-to-interpret label needed to be developed.
In 1990, with research and recommendations from several governmental agencies, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was passed. This allowed the FDA to mandate use of a standard nutrition label that listed specific nutrients and the amounts of these nutrients based on the percent a standard daily diet. Various government agencies responsible for alcoholic beverages, meat, and poultry then agreed to apply the same mandate and standard label for use on alcoholic beverages, processed meat, and poultry products. Fruits, vegetables, fish, single ingredient meat, and poultry did not have to be labeled.
From what I can tell, in 1992 the contents, approach, and design of today’s nutrition facts label was established. Slight changes have been made since, and continue to be made based on what we learn about nutrition, or for example, the childhood obesity epidemic. But each change must go through a lengthy proposal, comment period, and approval process.
What’s Included in Today’s Nutrition Facts Label
Straight from the source, the FDA explains the five main sections of today’s nutrition facts label:
Serving Size and the Number of Servings per Container, based on what an average serving size would be and presented in well-understood measures, like 1 cup or 15 pieces. The serving size also includes the equivalent metric weight for the serving—for example, a serving size for whole milk is one cup, which weighs 244 grams.
Calories in the serving and the portion of those Calories from Fat. They can tell you how much energy the food or beverage will provide you. Also, they let you determine if too many of your calories come from fat.
These are nutrients that you should limit. Fat (Saturated Fat and Trans Fat), Cholesterol, and Sodium. These are presented with weight measurements in metric measures such as grams and milligrams. But also, as the percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) based on a 2000 calorie diet. These are the nutrients that when consumed in excess, are linked to heart disease, cancer, and high blood pressure.
This section contains nutrients you want to get plenty of. Dietary Fiber for digestive health, Vitamins A and C, Calcium, and Iron. They’re presented in the same way as those in Section 3, by weight and percent of the RDA. As a note, a food is considered high in a nutrient (whether good or bad) if it is 20 percent or above and low in a nutrient if it is 5 percent or below.
The “footnote,” which is always the same, says that the daily values in the RDA are based on a 2000 calorie diet and that dietary needs vary from person to person. All nutrition facts labels must include this note, but there’s a bit of information below that statement that is optional to include. If it’s there, though, it will be the same on any label. Basically, it’s a guide to tell you how much of Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Cholesterol, Sodium, Total Carbohydrates, and Dietary Fiber you should consume based on a 2000 calorie diet and a 2500 calorie diet.
Do you pay attention to the nutrition facts label? Did you know that the FDA just redesigned and modified the label? It includes a line for added sugars, calls a lot more attention to the number of calories and serving size. It also requires vitamin D and potassium. Vitamins A and C are no longer required, but can be optionally included. That’s just a quick highlight of some of the changes. According to the FDA, food and beverage companies must use the new label by this time next year!
I’ve created and included a nutrition facts label for my latest salad recipe, Sun-dried Tomato with Quinoa and Almonds Salad. I’ve even included additional nutrients not required by the FDA so that you can get the complete nutrition picture. It’s fairly low in calories per serving, but gives you a healthy dose of Vitamin K, Vitamin E, Magnesium, and Phosphorus while getting you well on your way toward meeting your daily dietary fiber and protein requirements.