The Nutrition Facts panel, which first began appearing on food packages in 1994, is one of the most widely recognized graphics in the world, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"You see it on food. You see it on T-shirts. You see it in fashion. It’s become an icon of our era," FDA historian Suzanne Junod told Food Dive.
Although the graphic’s format is fairly standardized, it was deliberately designed to be flexible enough to allow regulators to adapt to the changing landscape of nutritional knowledge as warranted by ongoing scientific findings.
In the recently published book "Setting Nutritional Standards: Theory, Policies, Practices," Junod writes, "The modern U.S. food-package label has evolved steadily throughout the 20th century, and its content and format are regularly revised to reflect and apply new knowledge in the fields of medical, nutritional and regulatory science."
Surprisingly though, few changes have been made to the label in the past quarter century despite it being designed to easily incorporate new information based on nutritional and scientific advancements. The only revision of any substance to date — notwithstanding upcoming changes regarding added sugars and micronutrients — is the addition of trans fat information in 2006.
The need and push for nutritional information in food and the roots of mandatory labeling has a storied history dating back more than a century.
Progressive Era marks the need for more labeling
The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was the first consumer protection law of significance enacted by Congress in the 20th century, and led to the creation of the FDA. It was fundamentally a "truth in labeling" law intended to ban adulterated or mislabeled products and raise the standards across the food and drug industries.
"The focus in the Progressive Era [1890-1920] was on preventing consumer fraud — preventing food makers from substituting sand for sugar, or filtrating or otherwise misbranding a product, grinding pepper shells and mixing them with pepper, for example," Junod told Food Dive. "The idea was to protect the consumer from fraudulent and dangerous ingredients."
Packaged foods were a new phenomenon at the turn of the 20th century. Before that, most foods were traded and purchased in bulk, not packaged, boxed or canned. But select packaged goods were emerging onto the scene, priced at a premium because of their convenience and ease of handling.
Competitors began creeping in to undersell the original packaged goods in a practice that became known as "short-weight packaging" — that is, putting less food in packages, but making them look like they contained the same amount and then selling them at a lower price. These kinds of deceptive practices created the need for lawmakers to step in.
Consequently, the U.S. became the first country to enact mandatory food labeling in 1913 when it passed the Gould Net Weight Amendment to the 1906 Act. The Gould Amendment required all packaged foods to have the "quantity of their contents plainly and conspicuously marked on the outside of the package in terms of weight, measure or numerical count."
"Changes in manufacturing processes, purchasing patterns, consumer demands and retail structures were all important in making obvious the need to identify and curb patterns of container fraud, and in many ways the Gould Net Weight Amendment completed the circle of consumer protection initiated under the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act," Junod's book says.
Artificial additives, need for food standards prompt 1938 law
It was another two decades before any major changes to the Gould Amendment were passed. The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act took effect in 1938, requiring any artificial flavoring, coloring or chemical preservative — all of which had been earlier concerns — to be listed on the product label.
As part of the 1938 law, the FDA also began issuing food standards "to promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers," as the law states.
"This is when we see the consumer really start to take center stage in the food regulatory scene, after the '38 Act went into play," Junod said.
Many changes and scientific discoveries were taking place at this time. After World War I, it became evident that food fortification was important in eliminating some nutrition-related diseases like beriberi caused by a vitamin B1 deficiency and scurvy from a lack of vitamin C.
"We didn't know that much about vitamins until the '20s. A lot of them weren't even discovered until then. And no one was really clear about the role they played in human nutrition. But scientific studies began. That was pretty much when [the FDA] started getting into the nutrition business and taking a really hard scientific look at nutrients and what role they play in the diet."
"We didn't know that much about vitamins until the '20s. A lot of them weren't even discovered until then. And no one was really clear about the role they played in human nutrition," Junod said. "But scientific studies began. That was pretty much when [the FDA] started getting into the nutrition business and taking a really hard scientific look at nutrients and what role they play in the diet."
But another war disrupted efforts to set national standards.
"After WWII, it became even more apparent that certain nutrients needed to be in the diet," Junod said. The food standards process began in earnest.
In 1940, hearings on the identity standards for flour led the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences to recommend — and the FDA to subsequently accept — a standard for enriched flour that established "appropriate levels" of enrichment with vitamins and minerals.
This formula approach was subsequently adopted for white bread as well. Since it was a standardized food, the nutritional components did not have to be listed on the label because consumers could look them up as needed. Only optional ingredients were required to be listed.
Another several decades would pass before nutrition labels once again were in the spotlight.
FDA initiates nutrition labeling activities in the '70s
The White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health in 1969 marked the end of FDA’s emphasis on controlling the food supply through strict standards.
"Out of this conference came a recommendation that the FDA spend less time on the composition of foods and more on enhancing their nutritional value, letting people know about their nutritional value, and harnessing the power of technology to improve the nutritional value of foods," said Junod.
The FDA began to move to a system that focused on giving the consumer as much information as possible so he or she could make informed decisions. In fact, the FDA began to encourage food manufacturers to add full lists of their ingredients to the food label and changed standards to compel the inclusion of their ingredients on the food label.
In 1973, the FDA published the first regulations that required the nutrition labeling of certain foods. These included foods with added nutrients and those for which a nutrition claim was made on the label or in advertising.
"If a product claimed it was high in protein, the FDA required the manufacturer to provide a modicum of nutritional information. Back then it wasn't typically presented in any attention-getting way whatsoever. It was in small print and hard-to-read. But that represented the first 'real' nutritional labeling."
Co-founder and senior scientist, Center for Science in the Public Interest
"If a product claimed it was high in protein, for example, the FDA required the manufacturer to provide a modicum of nutritional information," Jacobson said. "But back then it wasn't typically presented in any attention-getting way whatsoever. It was in small print and hard-to-read. But that represented the first 'real' nutritional labeling. And progress was slow. In the early '70s, a negligible fraction of people cared about diet and health.
"Then in 1977, a Senate committee came out with a report called Dietary Goals for the United States. That was a landmark report. [It] said that Americans should be cutting down dramatically on sugar, salt, and saturated fat, and eating more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, and healthful foods," said Jacobson.
It was also at this time that the Department of Agriculture was busy developing the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which became a national nutrition policy. It was a landmark item as well, Jacobson noted, with the same findings as the Senate committee report: Eat more fruits and vegetables, and less salt and sugar.
Turning point: Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990
"In the 1980s, CSPI started filing complaints and petitions with the FDA because we noticed a proliferation of deceptive claims — health claims and nutrition claims. That and there was an increasing level of interest springing up in things like sodium and sugar and fat," Jacobson said.
Despite the efforts of CSPI and other consumer advocates and health authorities, it wasn’t until the passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 that mandatory nutrition labeling — and the introduction of the Nutrition Facts panel that we know today — expanded to virtually all foods regulated by the FDA.
The renowned Nutrition Facts graphic "was always intended to be a flexible way of conveying information to consumers. It was never expected to be set in stone," said Junod. "It was always designed to reflect nutritional science and consumer interest in any new knowledge we learned about nutrition.
"It is rather amazing how much went into designing the graphic," she continued. "We used an outside firm that knew a lot about branding. We did a number of focus groups and test panels, all sorts of research. It was quite staggering actually. The graphic — its design and look — was very well researched."
The coming years will see the Nutrition Facts panel undergo another significant overhaul. In the new version of the label, FDA will require specific listings for added sugars as well as some essential vitamins and nutrients — including vitamin D, potassium, calcium and iron — on all food labels. The label is set to be on all products by 2020.
Junod said that making changes to the law and to the label are really important to help consumers make informative and wise choices. The FDA is currently revamping serving sizes because people are eating differently.
"Now we have very in-depth nutritional surveys based on scientific samples," Junod said. "So things like serving size have changed dramatically over time and we have to maintain accuracy in the food label — what we know in terms of nutrition and what people are actually eating."