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The Evolution of Food Labels: A Timeline

Written by Nermae De Asis    ●    Published on June 26, 2021

Key Highlights

Track how food labeling has progressed from a simple marker for food producers to an essential product panel that empowers the modern consumer to make informed decisions about their health. 

  • The first food labels were made in the 1850s as safety measures due to numerous food-related illnesses. In 1862, the United States Department of Agriculture was established to address the need for nationwide food regulation. 

  • The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 prohibited misleading or false food label information, while the 1913 Gould Amendment required food labels to be placed outside of the packaging. 

  • Discussions about food labels shifted in the 1950s, focusing on health benefits and ingredients. The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act was enacted in 1967, requiring cosmetics to disclose every ingredient in a product. 

  • The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 made nutritional facts mandatory. The regulation also standardized the nutrition labels, revealing all the ingredients and nutritional information. 

  • Mandates on the Nutrition Facts panel have evolved to include updated information on food allergens (since 2004), trans fat (since 2006), added sugars, and serving sizes (since 2020). 

It’s hard to imagine how you can buy food nowadays without any way of knowing what it contains and how it affects you as a consumer. Without the nutrition facts label, manufacturers can simply package anything, label it as something delicious and healthy, without being held accountable for the claims printed on their products.

This is precisely how food labeling started. Before the nutrition facts label was established in 1990, food labeling was already used to track adulterated products even during the Middle Ages.

Learn about how food labeling evolved into something that merely served as a mark for food producers, to a vital product panel that empowers modern consumers to make informed decisions about their health.

inforgraphics: history of food labels

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Life Before Labels

Before the industrialized world, there were no government-mandated inspection services or labeling guidelines to ensure the quality of the food people consumed. Most products were grown and sold locally, so consumers could procure directly from the suppliers and farmers. Customers could see the products being weighed and packaged in front of them, and that brought a level of trust in their purchase. Other than that, people could only rely on their senses to determine whether a product was edible for consumption.

The Roman Empire

  • An interesting precursor to labeling was practiced by the Ancient Romans. They made bronze bread stamps to mark individual loaves baked in community ovens.
  • The bread was controlled from cost to size. The markings helped Roman law authorities identify and prevent extortionist pricing.


  • During the Middle Ages, wine was a valuable commodity, but because it was produced in far-flung areas, it was difficult to tell whether the product was misbranded or not. This led to a proclamation against wine adulteration and required that each bottle should be labeled to indicate its place of origin.


  • Butter was one of the most widely adulterated foods in England. A statute required every butter packer to brand their initials and surname on each container that they sold.

How Did Food Labeling Start?

In the 1850s, the industrialization of agriculture, the invention of heavy machinery and transportation, and breakthroughs in food production and preservation led to the requirement of food labels. Small farmers stopped growing their own food and started purchasing cheaper goods from the supermarket.

The invention of canning and refrigeration allowed food producers to sell nationwide. However, the lack of a direct and personal relationship with the merchants meant that consumers had no way to determine the quality of their purchases.


  • Food labeling emerged as a safety precaution, as a result of foodborne illness outbreaks. The most highly publicized death from food poisoning was of 12th U.S. President Zachary Taylor, after consuming contaminated fruit and milk at a picnic.
  • Food and drink adulteration became a public health dilemma after a published report documented its contribution to the decline of the average life expectancy of Americans.
  • Many U.S. states adopted anti-adulteration statutes because of this report, but they could not regulate food transported across state lines.
  • This was a disadvantage for producers of regional specialties (e.g., New York cream cheese, Kentucky bourbon, and California wine). Other entrepreneurs would seize the products’ regional identities and sell fraudulent items that had no connection to the region.
  • Big-name producers like Frederick Pabst and H.J. Heinz began lobbying for a federal regulatory agency that would reinstate respect and trust in the food industry.


  • President Abraham Lincoln created the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to institute food handling and processing guidelines.

Food Labeling and Legislations in the Progressive Era

Packaged foods were a new phenomenon at the turn of the 20th century. This era focused on preventing producers from filtrating or misbranding a product. The first federal food laws raised the standards across the food and drug industries.


  • The Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, which was the first federal law to prohibit false or misleading statements on food labels. This also marked the origins of the Food and Drug Administration as a federal consumer protection agency.
  • The Meat Inspection Act was passed to continuously inspect all red meats in interstate distribution.


  • The Gould Amendment was added to the Pure Food and Drug Act, requiring contents to be marked on the outside of the food package.

Food Labeling for The Interest of Consumers

Many changes and scientific discoveries took place, such as the relationship between a chemical additive and microorganisms in foods that can cause disease and harm in humans. Food regulations during this time prioritized the consumer’s health and increasing awareness about the ingredients included with every product.


  • The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act took effect, requiring any artificial flavoring, coloring, or chemical preservative to be listed on the food label. It also states that “a food shall be deemed to be misbranded if its labeling is false or misleading in any particular.”


  • President Kennedy proclaims the Consumer Bill of Rights, which included the consumer’s right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose, and the right to be heard.


  • The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) was established, which required an ingredient declaration on every cosmetic product offered for sale to consumers. Ingredients were also required to be listed in descending order of quantity.


  • The White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health convened by President Richard Nixon came to a recommendation that the FDA focus on enhancing the nutritional value of foods.


  • A Senate committee report shared findings that Americans should eat more fruits and vegetables, and less salt and sugar.

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990

Finally, a standardized food label was created. This mandate aimed not only to empower consumers to make informed decisions about their food purchases but also to educate them about nutrition. All food companies were required to make consistent claims and include a detailed, standardized nutrition facts panel on all products intended to be sold.


  • The Nutrition Facts Panel was introduced and mandated for most packaged foods.


  • The FDA required that the 8 major food allergens (milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans) to be listed on the front of the packaging.


  • The FDA proposed changes to the nutrition facts label, to focus on calories, updated serving sizes that reflect true consumption, and a specific listing for added sugars versus naturally occurring sugars.


  • FDA's new nutrition label was finally applied on all products, 6 years after it was initially proposed.

Food labels have come a long way, from being simple regulatory marks to enforce adulteration laws to becoming an informational panel that helps consumers choose food based on their personal dietary needs. As discoveries in the fields of medical, nutritional, and regulatory science are uncovered, the nutrition label will continue to evolve to cater to the needs of the modern consumer.