Maybe you’ve heard the buzz, or maybe you’ve even seen it on one of your favorite food products – the FDA Nutrition Facts Label got a major makeover. When we consider the brief history in nutrition labeling in the United States, this revision to existing regulations was long overdue. Let’s take a look at the history of the Nutrition Facts Label to get a better understanding of why these changes were much needed.

The Wild West

The first food labels didn’t exist until around the late 1960s and, at that point, they were mostly optional. That may sound like a foreign concept, but at the time almost all meals were prepared fresh in the home from single ingredients. The introduction of manufactured food products led to public interest and demand for more information about what they were actually consuming. In 1973, as a result of this consumer demand, the FDA published their first set of labeling regulations as an extension of the 1967 Fair Packaging and Labeling Act.  Manufacturers noticed that consumers preferred to buy products labeled with nutrition information, so most food manufacturers chose to utilize the Nutrition Facts Label. However, there was little standardization for labeling food and making health or nutrient content claims. So, in order for the average consumer to navigate the shopping aisle and make the best decisions for their family, they needed to be both mathematicians and detectives. There was no order.

And Then There Was a Label

Finally, in 1989, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that they would be revising the label and held public forums for comment. Significant changes were made at this time and the FDA created what we know now as the standard Nutrition Fact Label. In 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was signed into law. Today, both the 1990 NLEA format and the updated 2016 Nutrition Facts Label format exist on products in the marketplace, as the 1990 label format will not be completely phased out until the FDA’s proposed compliance date of 2021.  

However, the 1990 regulations were based on research conducted on healthy Americans in the 1970s. Everything from how much of each nutrient we should consume (%DV) to standard serving sizes was based on a population that still consumed mainly freshly prepared foods. Since that time, there has been a major shift in eating habits to more processed foods, a rise in diet related medical problems and a sharp increase in obesity rates.

Manufacturers have also gradually increased package sizes of foods or beverages intended to be consumed in one sitting.  However, current standing regulations allow them to use the standard serving sizes developed between 1973 and 1990. The best example of this is found in the beverage industry:  when you buy a 16 fl oz soda, which is intended for consumption in one sitting, it has a serving size of 8 fl oz with two servings in one container. This requires the average consumer to first notice that there are two servings per container, and then do the math to figure out exactly what they are consuming. This is just one example of regulation falling behind the exponential growth of the food and beverage industry. Consumers have started to notice and are demanding more transparency and easier to read labels.

A New Era

In 2016, the FDA introduced a new set of rules and an updated Nutrition Facts Label.  These new regulations are based off of current scientific data and focus on the needs of our current population. The most obvious cosmetic change on the label is to the ‘Calories’, which now stands out in a bolder, larger type size than the rest of the label. The ‘Calories from Fat’ field has also been removed. Over the past 50 years, Americans have begun avoiding fat in their food and manufacturers have responded by offering more low fat and fat free options. These changes on the new label are intended to shift focus away from concerns over fat to added sugars in our diet.

One of the other big changes to the label is the addition of an ‘Added Sugars’ line. Under the ‘Total Sugar’ value, there is a declaration of how much sugar was added into the product that does not naturally occur within the product. This includes refined sugar, honey, molasses, syrups and corn sweeteners – all things we should be moderating in our diet.

The ‘Vitamins & Minerals’ section has also been updated. Each of the vitamins and minerals will now declare both the mg or mcg value and the ‘% Daily Value’. Potassium is making its debut on the label, while Calcium and Iron will remain. Current population studies show that the average American is currently consuming adequate amounts of Vitamins A & C, so those nutrients have been removed from the label. They will be replaced with Vitamin D, as most of the US population is deficient in that vitamin.  

Aside from these changes, the new regulations address concerns that are not as obvious to the average consumer. This includes regulations surrounding health claims, nutrient content claims, declared daily values and standard serving sizes. The new serving sizes are based on research data and are intended to display nutrition for the average amount of a specific food that is consumed in one sitting. Single serve foods and beverages will also see a major change. Remember that 16 oz soda we discussed? Now the entire bottle will need to be declared as one serving, leading to less confusion in the grocery aisle. Other packages may need to declare both the ‘nutrition per one serving’ and the nutrition per the entire package, depending on the package size.

All of these changes are intended to make food labels more transparent to the average consumer. It has been the trend in nutrition labeling history that consumer demand pushes regulations which lead to changes in manufacturing processes, and manufacturers are already responding to these new regulations with product reformulations. The idea is that people will start paying more attention to the labels on their food, and consequently make changes in their overall diet. At this point it’s unclear if the updated label will change consumer purchasing behaviors, but either way, it’s about time that food regulations are catching up to the modern American diet.

Need to create or update your labels to comply with FDA regulations? Mérieux NutriSciences offers complete nutrition labeling options to ensure compliant labels. If you’re preparing your nutrient data for the new Nutrition Facts Label, our expert Regulatory Label Compliance Team can help! We offer nutrition labeling by laboratory analysis, calculated analysis or a combination of the two. Our Food Labeling Compliance Specialists will help you determine which method is appropriate for your product. 


Meet the Author

Paulina Schmidtke
Regulatory Compliance Analyst- Nutrition Database & Labeling, Mérieux NutriSciences

Paulina earned her Bachelor’s degree in Dietetics at Michigan State University, where she sparked her interest in food labeling regulations working with small businesses in Michigan. At Mérieux NutriSciences, she works with national restaurants and manufacturers to help them stay compliant with new labeling regulations. Paulina has a passion for cooking, developing new recipes and home brewing new beers with family and friends.

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