Background

Since the early 1900s, the Federal Government has been providing food and nutrition guidance to people living in the U.S. The ERS report, America's Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences, discusses the history of Federal dietary recommendations, public awareness of Federal dietary recommendations, and how information channels, like advertising and health claims, influence dietary outcomes. Please see:

America's Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences

Since 1980, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have provided science-based guidance on what Americans can consume to have a healthy and active life. Published every five years in partnership with the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, the most recent version was released in 2020. The MyPlate program illustrates how to implement these guidelines for consumers.

Other nutrition education programs, such as SNAP-Ed, are designed to interpret the Dietary Guidelines and provide suggestions for implementation to specific population groups.

The 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) required standardization of the health and nutritional information provided to consumers by food manufacturers on food packages. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) developed the Nutrition Facts Label (NFL) food manufacturers had to place on their products to comply with the law. At the same time, new rules were imposed on voluntary health claims, standardizing which foods could or could not add various labels on their packaging. In 2016, the FDA finalized a rule requiring labels regulated by FDA to use a revised NFL by January 2021. The revised NFL reflects recent scientific research and dietary recommendations. In 2017, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) followed suit with a proposed rule to revise the NFL on meat and poultry product labels. Labels regulated by FSIS can voluntarily use the revised FDA NFL, while FSIS works to finalize its own regulation.

Additionally, front-of-package labels convey a wide variety of information. Some describe how a product was grown, raised, harvested, processed, or packaged—for example, “raised without antibiotics.” Other labels describe the product’s specific internal characteristics, such as color, taste, quality, or nutritional content—for example, nutrition- and health-related claims such as “low-fat.” Still others describe credibility attributes, which cannot be seen, felt, or experienced by consumers, such as naming the product’s country of origin.

Some claims are mandatory, like requiring country-of-origin labels for some foods. However, most labels are used voluntarily with varying degrees of government involvement. For example, food producers can label their products “organic,” if their production practices are certified as meeting USDA’s complete regulatory requirements for environmental stewardship. The FDA regulates which nutrition- and health-related claims can be made. Food can be labeled as “natural” as long the producer states the food was minimally processed and does not contain artificial ingredients. Some claims, such as “made without genetically-engineered ingredients,” are not Federally regulated.