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What is a Nutrition Label?

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  • Written By: Josie Myers
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2016
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A nutrition label, also called a food label, is a graphic square placed on a box of prepared foods that shows the nutritional value of a consumable product. It also gives that value expressed as a percentage of the daily nutrition values that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends for a healthy diet. A nutrition label is a federally mandated addition to any food product that is traded interstate.

A nutrition label is required on prepared foods such as breads, cereals, canned and frozen foods, snacks, desserts, and drinks. It is optional on fresh raw meats and produce. If a nutrition label is included on these fresh products, it is a voluntary addition by the manufacturer.

The information included on a nutrition label is standardized for all packaged foods. The amount of saturated fat, cholesterol, dietary fiber, and other such nutrients that are of concern for health are included. Also included is the nutrient value expressed as a percentage of recommended daily values. The serving size is listed at the top of the label, while the footnote lists the average caloric intake for an individual and percentages of daily values the product provides as they fit into this intake.

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The beginnings of food labeling occurred as early as 1862 when President Lincoln launched the Department of Agriculture and Bureau of Chemistry, which would later become the Food and Drug Administration. In the early 1900s, the Food and Drugs Act and Meat Inspection Act were passed. Both were intended to protect consumers from irresponsible food production and distribution.

In 1938, a new version of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was passed. It required standards of identity and quality for food as well as set the safe levels of unavoidable poisonous substances. In addition, the act set an acceptable level of fill for containers, meaning that manufacturers could not half fill a container to fool consumers into believing they were getting more food.

President Kennedy introduced the Consumer Bill of Rights in 1962. This proclaimed a consumer's right to safety, to be informed, to choose, and to be heard as it related to consumer goods. This was followed by the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act in 1965, which required all traded products to be honestly and informatively labeled.

In 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act passed. This made it necessary for all packaged foods to have nutrition labels and back up all health claims with the Secretary of Health and Human Services. This act also standardized the basic white and black nutrition label that appears on food in the 21st century, along with definitions of terms like "low fat" and "light." The United States federal government maintains these standards of food safety and labeling in order to protect consumers from financial and physical harm.

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