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Using Food Labeling to Improve Diet and Health: An Examination of the U.S. Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, by Bruce Silverglade, Director of Legal Affairs, Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In 1994, the United States became the first nation to require that all processed foods disclose full nutrition information. The requirement was part of the U.S. Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA). The new law also set comprehensive standards for nutrition claims such as "light" and "low fat" and set up a regulatory framework for the approval of health claims such as "Diets low in fat and cholesterol may help reduce the risk of heart disease." This article discusses the historical background of the law, reviews the three major sections of the NLEA, and examines the law's impact on the marketplace and on consumers.


The major impetus for the enactment of the NLEA grew out of a general concern over the relationship between diet and disease, particularly heart disease and cancer, which are the two leading causes of death in the United States. U.S. public health authorities have estimated that as many as one third of all cases of cancer and heart disease in the U.S. are caused by diets that are high in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, and low in fiber.

Consumer surveys taken over the last decade showed that many Americans were attempting to reduce their risk of cancer and heart disease by improving their diets. These self-help efforts, however, were hindered by the absence of adequate nutrition information on many food labels and the inconsistent, and sometimes misleading, use of nutrition and health claims by food marketers.

As part of an effort to enable American consumers to choose a healthier diet, consumer, public health and medical organizations led a campaign in the 1980s for legislation that required all food products sold in the United States to provide detailed nutrition information and that required nutrition and health claims for foods to comply with official government standards. After several years of effort and often stiff opposition from the U.S. food industry, the U.S. Congress finally passed the NLEA in 1990.

The NLEA spurred corresponding changes in meat and poultry labeling regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and changes in rules for food advertising claims regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The new regulatory framework for food labeling and advertising has even affected the restaurant industry, which is covered by some of the new requirements.

The new rules for food labeling cost the U.S. food industry more than $2 billion to implement. However, benefits from the new regulations, which include health care cost savings and related improvements in productivity, have been estimated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to range from $4 billion to $100 billion over the next two decades.

Three years have now elapsed since the law's requirements have become effective. An examination of marketing data and consumer behavior surveys provide strong evidence that the NLEA has clearly influenced marketplace behavior by both food producers and consumers. Consumers are using food labels to select more healthful foods and manufacturers are producing thousands of new, more healthful items.


Prior to the passage of the NLEA, U.S. nutrition labeling policy was similar to that now in effect in the European Union. Labeling was required only if manufacturers made a nutrition claim about a product. Under this system, only about 60% of food labels in the U.S. disclosed nutrition information. When nutrition information was disclosed, only minimal data on protein, fat, carbohydrate and sodium content were listed, together with information on various vitamins and minerals.

The NLEA now requires that practically all food products provide a "Nutrition Facts" label disclosing total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, fiber, sugar, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron content. This information must be listed for a customary portion of the food. The FDA has defined customary portions for more than 130 categories of food.

One of the most novel features of the new law is a requirement that the label also disclose how much a customary portion of the food contributes to the total amount of these nutrients that an average American should consume per day in order to stay within official U.S. guidelines for healthy eating. Prior to the passage of the NLEA, such information was required only for vitamins and minerals. As a result, consumers can now tell at a glance whether a food is high or low in particular nutrients, such as saturated fat or fiber.

Consumer survey data shows that consumers are using this information and that the label is having a significant impact. The 1996 Shopping for Health survey sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute, an association of major U.S. retail grocers, found that 78% of American consumers have seen the new nutrition label and that 58% of consumers said they almost always read the nutrition label when buying a food for the first time. According to the 1997 American Dietetic Association's Nutrition Trends Survey, about two-thirds of those reading the nutrition label say they stopped or started buying a food product because of something they read on the label, and 56% of consumers said the information on the nutrition label would cause them to switch brands.

Market research data on supermarket sales reveal figures that are consistent with these findings. For example, sales of fatty meats such as baloney have decreased, while sales of leaner meats such as turkey have increased. Recent studies indicate that most nutrition information on food labels is accurate. Of the 300 products tested by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, approximately 91% of all tested nutrients were consistent with the information on the label.

The European Union has complained to the U.S. FDA that the new labeling requirements constitute a non-tariff trade barrier in violation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). No governmental body, however, has formally challenged the NLEA on these grounds, perhaps because the law applies equally to both domestically produced and imported food products and because the true purpose of the law is the advancement of the public's health.


Congress also enacted the NLEA because of widespread concern over the proliferation of inconsistent, poorly defined, and confusing terms used to describe nutrient content. The goal of the NLEA, and its implementing regulations, was to "bring a sense of order to the understanding of terms used when describing characterizations of food products."

The NLEA thus required the U.S. FDA to set comprehensive standards for nutrition claims like "Low Fat," "Low Cholesterol," "Light," and "Healthy." Prior to the issuance of these official standards for nutrition and health claims, food companies used nutrition terminology in an inconsistent fashion. Many companies, due to competitive pressures and a lack of adequate regulatory guidance from government authorities, made misleading claims. For example, some companies labeled a food as "High Fiber" even though it had only a minimal amount of fiber. Other companies labeled foods as "Low Cholesterol" even though they were high in saturated fat, the consumption of which increases serum cholesterol levels. In 1989, even Business Week magazine proclaimed on its cover that "Health Claims for Foods are Becoming Ridiculous." In response to this problem, the NLEA directed FDA to establish standard definitions for a limited number of terms, so that consumers could better decipher food labels.

As required, the FDA has established official standards for the use of nutrition claims. For example, a food labeled as "Low Fat" must now have no more than three grams of fat per customarily consumed serving.

Sales data show that the NLEA's nutrition claims regulations are having a big impact on the marketplace. According to New Product News, more than 2000 new low or reduced fat products were introduced in the U.S. marketplace in 1996. That number has almost tripled since 1993, the year before the Act's requirements became mandatory.

Consumers are also relying on nutrition claims when making purchasing decisions. For example, the Food Marketing Institute's 1996 Trends survey found that 81% of consumers have sought out and purchased products labeled low fat and 68% have sought out and purchased products labeled low cholesterol.

There is also evidence that some food manufacturers are reformulating their products in order to tell a more positive story on the nutrition facts label. The demand for lower fat foods, for example, has led ice cream manufacturers to introduce new fat-free products. There are also dozens of low-fat peanut butters, hot dogs, cheeses, cookies and salad dressings now on the market. The FDA has found that market shares of such products like fat-modified cookies, cheese, and peanut butter have increased.

The successful marketing of such products is especially important given that consumers who may not even read the nutrition label will still benefit when manufacturers reformulate products and fill the grocery store shelves with new, healthier low- and reduced-fat items.

Some have questioned whether these developments are meaningful considering that obesity rates in the U.S. continue to increase despite the increasing availability of low-fat and reduced-fat products. A few studies suggest that some people may be using low-fat foods as an excuse to eat larger portions of food. However, it would be inappropriate to link the rise in obesity rates with the NLEA. The big jump in obesity in the United States showed up between the early 1980s and the early 1990s, several years before the NLEA took effect. Furthermore, the causes of the obesity epidemic in the U.S. are complex. Sedentary lifestyles and an increase in consumption of restaurant food, for which little nutrition information is available, are likely responsible for much of the problem.

Moreover, nutrition labeling is important for many reasons and was not provided just for people who want to lose weight. Information on fat and saturated fat was included on the nutrition label primarily to help people reduce their risk of heart disease and cancer, not obesity.


Health claims are an extremely powerful marketing tool that have a great potential for misleading consumers. In some cases, these claims also can be educational by informing consumers about the relationship between diet and disease, but only if they are regulated properly. Presently, only the U.S. and Japan have established regulatory frameworks for the approval of health claims. Such claims remain illegal in the rest of the world, but enforcement by regulatory authorities is often weak.

A rather unique and controversial provision of the NLEA permits food manufacturers to make health claims under certain conditions. Before permitting such a claim, the FDA must find that there is "significant scientific agreement" based on the totality of the publicly available scientific evidence that consumption of the nutrient in question can in fact reduce the risk of a disease. The food must also meet other specified criteria.

Prior to the passage of the law, some companies implied that certain foods had unique nutritional properties that could reduce the risk of heart disease or cancer. Under the new law, the FDA has approved, at least until recently, only generic claims concerning healthy dietary patterns that can appear on the labels of appropriate types of foods specified by the agency. For example, a food that contains minimal levels of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and significant levels of either protein, fiber, or certain micronutrients, can carry a statement that "Diets low in saturated fat, cholesterol and total fat may help reduce the risk of heart disease." To date, the FDA has approved 10 health claims.

Studies by the U.S. FDA estimate that several hundred food products bear authorized health claims. A trip through the aisles of an American supermarket will show that these educational messages appear on a variety of eligible food products, ranging from breakfast cereals to frozen fruit pops (which are made with significant amounts of real fruit).

For example, Campbell's Pork and Beans bears an FDA-approved health claim regarding diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. Pillsbury (Grand Metropolitan) frozen broccoli spears bear an FDA-approved claim that links diets low in fat and high in vegetables containing certain nutrients to a reduced risk of cancer. These claims further serve to educate consumers about the relationship between diet and disease.

The FDA is presently trying to respond to food industry critics who say the agency's health claim policy is too restrictive. For example, in response to a petition from the Quaker Oats company, the FDA recently approved a new health claim that soluble fiber from oats may reduce the risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, the new claim will allow Quaker and other food companies to specifically highlight the benefits of eating oats, when fruits, vegetables and other grain products that are high in soluble fiber can provide the same benefit. This new health claim may also mislead consumers because it does not tell people who are relying on soluble fiber from oats alone that they must eat up to three to four servings of oatmeal or other oat based breakfast cereals every day in order to obtain any health benefit. Consumer and public health organizations hope that the FDA refrains from approving any additional health claims for specific foods, and instead limits the law's application to claims about generic dietary patterns that may help maintain good health.


In sum, the NLEA is making an important imprint on consumer purchasing decisions and food industry marketing efforts in the United States. The NLEA can thus serve as a model for similar efforts to improve health and promote consumer welfare in other nations where over or under consumption of certain nutrients is linked to the onset or the reduction of disease.