Food companies’ use of voluntary health- and nutrition-related (HNR) claims on product labels declined during the 1990s, but began rising again in 2002, according to a new article from USDA’s Economic Research Service. And the types of claims reflect the evolution of consumer preferences and health concerns.

Somewhat ironically, the decline in use of HNR claims during the 1990s resulted, in part, from Congressional passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA). This legislation established labeling regulations that require nearly all packaged products to carry the Nutrition Facts label. The regulations also specify which voluntary HNR claims are allowed and under what circumstances they can be used.

The share of new products with HNR claims declined from 34.6 percent of all new products in 1989 to 25.2 percent in 2001, and the percentage of new products that carried HNR claims fell in 12 of 16 food categories. The decline suggests implementation of the NLEA could have discouraged manufacturers from using such claims if their products did not meet the requirements.

That trend shifted after 2002 however, and by 2010, 43 percent of new foods and beverages claimed to be low in fat, high in fiber, or formulated with some other positive nutrition or health attribute.

Other key points in the report include:

  • In 2003, FDA issued a regulation mandating disclosure for trans fatty acids, or trans fats, on nutrition labels by 2006. As food companies revised labels to meet the impending 2006 deadline, some also reformulated their products with new trans fats-free oils and used claims to gain a competitive edge. From 2001 to 2005, the percentage of new products with no/low trans fats claims increased from 0.1 to 7.8 percent, which was the largest increase among HNR claims over the period.
  • By 2010, low or no trans fats ranked as the fifth most popular claim, trailing only “high vitamins or minerals,” “no gluten,” “low or no fat,” and “low or no calories.”
  • Americans have had mixed response to foods labeled for lower fat and sodium content. Mandatory nutrition labeling and consumer concerns about fat resulted in growth of new products with low- or no- fat claims grew from 9.2 percent in 1989 to over 25 percent in 1995 and 1996.
  • However, many consumers found the taste of fat-free and low-fat foods introduced in the mid-1990s to be disappointing, and from 1997 to 2000, the percentage of new products with low- or no-fat claims fell from 22 to 15 percent. Since 2001, increased attention to the obesity epidemic appears to have stemmed the downward spiral in products introduced with low- or no- fat claims.
  • While sodium claims increased by 2 percentage points from 2001 to 2010, over half of the increase occurred in 2010 as concerns over dietary sodium grew.
  • From 2001 to 2010, the percentage of new products with a “no gluten” claim increased from 1 to 12 percent, which was the largest percentage-point increase among HNR claims. By 2010, “no gluten” ranked second only to claims related to vitamins and minerals.
  • Products labeled as high in antioxidants had the fourth largest percentage-point increase among HNR claims from 2001 to 2010, behind only no gluten, low or no trans fats, and low or no calories. The increase in omega-3-related claims ranked as the 10th largest increase over the same period.
  • An analysis suggests that companies did not use HNR claims to market products that are unhealthier with respect to other nutrients or compensate by adding unhealthy nutrients when they reformulated products. On average, products carrying at least one of the leading HNR claims from 2010 contained smaller quantities of other nutrients that should be consumed in moderation such as cholesterol or sodium.

Read the full article from USDA/ERS.