How Did the Nutrition Label Get Started?

How did the Nutrition Label Get Started?

Nutrition. As a country, we have learned about the concept of nutrition over the years. While there are certainly a few roadblocks that try to keep us from applying it on a mass scale, such as expense, lobbying, politics, etc, we still learned quite a lot. Even within the last hundred years. However, the contradictory information about nutrition combined with changing standards begs the question: Why do we have them in the first place? What made nutritional labels a mandatory thing, and does it really help the community in the long run?

So, today, we are going to examine the history and the purpose of the nutrition label.

Since When Did Ingredients for Anything Needed Listing?

To see the first instance of Americans wanting to know what they were actually eating, we need to go back to the early 1900s. It was a time in which the government did not regulate medicines, foods, alcohol, products. A dream come true for any aspiring entrepreneur who wanted to make money for a product they invented.

Unfortunately, the lack of regulation also made it all too easy for con artists and desperate peddlers to sell a product with anything they wanted in it. If these salesmen were running low on any ingredient, they could add anything they wanted like sawdust to stretch it out. Or if they wanted to nutrition label, snake oil, before 1906make it more powerful to make sure people felt their mystical cure ‘worked’ they would add some cocaine into the mix.

These unsavory practices at best lead to ineffective products and at worst could cause a high mortality rate.  The average cough syrup for babies would contain a cocktail of drugs and alcohol that could kill a horse, let alone a two-year-old infant.

This, combined with journalists exposing the process of the meat packing industry and the temperance movement made it possible for the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the Meat Inspection Act to pass in 1906.

The point of the act was for the government to regulate the production and distribution of foods, medicine, and any other substance for the safety of the public.  The act also demanded proper and accurate labeling of products meant for human consumption. This included listing every ingredient that was in it.

However, this was only the beginning. It wouldn’t be until the late 1960s- early 1970s that this would be expanded further.

An Expansion of Nutrition Labeling

Since America had a depression, a war, and communists to worry about, there was little worry about specialized diets. Ther goverment still gave out some base information as part of a nutrition guideline. However, it was more generalized than today. This was because most foods at this time had been prepared at home, and unless it revolved around the dietary issues of the military or any other government jurisdiction, Nutrition label before 1970'sthey didn’t bother with regulations. The exception to this was the occasional label specifically talking about sodium for special dietary reasons.

However, when processed food started to become more commonplace, the public started to worry again. This time, about what could possibly be involved in the creation of their instant meals. This outcry lead to a solution headed by the FDA and the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health.  ” Every manufacturer should be encouraged to provide truthful nutritional information about his products to enable consumers to follow recommended dietary regimens.”

So, the FDA immediately got to work on drafting the first version of the Nutrition Guideline Label.


1970s nutrition label

“When finalized in 1973, these regulations specified that when nutrition labeling was present on labels of FDA-regulated foods, it was to include the number of calories; the grams of protein, carbohydrate, and fat; and the percent of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance (U.S. RDA) of protein, vitamins A and C, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, calcium, and iron. Sodium, saturated fatty acids, and polyunsaturated fatty acids could also be included at the manufacturer’s discretion. All of these nutrients were to be reported on the basis of an average or usual serving size.”

But that still wasn’t quite enough.

The Addition of Dietary Values

There was growing concern from the scientific and medical communities. With the rise of fast food, and the presence of dietary information the United States Department of Health and Services had some concerns. According to the head of the department at the time, ” As consumers shop for healthier food, they encounter confusion and frustration… . The grocery store has become a Tower of Babel and consumers need to be linguists, scientists and mind readers to understand the many labels they see.”

He was concerned about the lack of clarity regarding the nutrition labels. While there was a statement of what was in the food on each label, it was up to the consumer to find out how much the daily value of something was. So, unless the people shopping had an explicit understanding of what these nutrients were, and how much was expected every day, they were more or less going in blind.

So, in the 1990’s the initiative of adding things like caloric content, the percentage of daily nutritional values,  and the standard amount of calories that is supposed to be in the daily diet. This was called the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA).

This is the most modern interpretation of nutritional labeling, at least from a government regulation standpoint.  A few food-based companies have tried their hand at their own nutritional labeling standards. They failed at varying degrees thanks to their own corporate bias.

Progress Marches On


However, there are still some worries from various communities and interest groups about the clarity of the current nutrition label.  These groups proposed a series of changes about the specificity of the nutritional label. Mainly about which information should be more prominent.

However, this still doesn’t address the elephant in the room about nutrition as a whole. Not all calories are equal. You wouldn’t expect to get the same results from a cookie and a banana after all. So, there is still some room for improvement.

All we can do is keep learning, and keep making changes with the best interest of our community in mind.

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