The disclosure of nutritional information on most packaged foods sold in U.S. grocery stores became mandatory with the implementation of the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) in 1994. Under the NLEA, nearly all packaged foods are required to carry the “Nutrition Facts” label, which lists per serving amounts and percentages of daily values for a variety of nutrients in a standardized format. By providing nutrition information in a credible, distinctive, and easy-to-read format, the label was expected to help consumers choose healthier, more nutritious diets.

Findings from empirical studies show that the NLEA led consumers to acquire more information about nutrition. An ERS review of the NLEA’s impact revealed that packaged food labels triggered greater consumer awareness of nutritional issues. Using data gathered 8 months before and 8 months after NLEA’s implementation, a Duke University researcher found that the new labels helped consumers acquire and comprehend more nutrition information. Results from another study, which used a similar pre- and post-NLEA design, showed that the NLEA increased consumer attention to potentially negative nutritional attributes, such as high fat and sodium content.

Awareness, however, did not consistently translate into action, and its effect on food choices varied by nutrient. A 2008 ERS analysis found that people who reported using the Nutrition Facts label had higher fiber and iron intake than those who rarely or never used the information. At the same time, ERS researchers found no evidence that label use was associated with reduced intake of calories, saturated fat, or cholesterol.