It has been almost 25 years since the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued final regulations for the Nutrition Facts label. While most foods listed nutritional facts on labels as early as the late 1960s, thanks to the surge of processed foods in the 1950s, it was not until 1993 that the FDA established official nutritional requirements that set the standard for the labeling of all processed and prepared foods and are still in use today, leading to food labeling trends.

Over the last decade, the FDA has been working to develop new nutrition labeling standards to help consumers better understand how much and what they are eating and drinking and let them make more informed decisions. Key elements of the proposed rules include changes based on new nutrition science, updated serving size requirements and labeling for certain packages, and refreshing the hierarchy and contents of the iconic label design. For example, labels will feature a much greater emphasis on calories and the number of servings per package, using larger and bolder type to ease identification by consumers. Another major shift comes from the FDA’s proposal to change serving size requirements to reflect the reality of what people actually eat based on current food consumption trends — not how much they should eat. If passed, these changes are anticipated to carry a one-time cost of $2.3 billion for the food industry[1].

Several other trends driving change in food labeling, or several other food labeling trends, include the push from consumers for gluten-free, organic, non-GMO and locally produced foods, with many brands turning to distinct iconography on package labels to communicate these attributes to shoppers. The “clean label,” which at its most basic definition involves using a minimum number of recognizable ingredients and providing transparency about their origins, is another topic garnering increased attention and debate in the U.S.

While new legislation usually comes with a buffer between the date rules become effective and when manufacturers need to be in compliance — the FDA has proposed a two-year grace period for compliance with final Nutrition Facts labels rules; therefore, there is no time like the present for manufacturers to start planning.

The good news is that when it comes to the production of package labels, food manufacturers have an option that makes achieving compliance an efficient and cost-effective endeavor: on-demand color labeling.

The very nature of this one-step process means that food manufacturers only produce as many full-color labels as they need — precisely when they need them. On-demand color printers produce all color label information as well as variable data in a single process, pulling presaved data and label formats that have been programmed into their memory. This process enhances operational efficiency by eliminating the long lead times and high inventories associated with preprinted labels as well as reducing shipping errors.

The real-time label production that on-demand color labeling offers, combined with the fact that the same blank stock labels can be used for multiple SKUs or brands, gives food manufacturers the flexibility they need to quickly and seamlessly comply with whichever changes to the Nutrition Facts label ultimately get passed — or any future legislation that may arise. It also dramatically reduces waste, especially since preprinted labels will no longer become obsolete. Overall, the on-demand process can reduce total label costs by up to 50 percent through streamlined processing and reduced waste.

The ability to produce high-quality color graphics on labels offers many additional benefits. For example, as more and more warehouses serve as dual fulfillment centers for both online and brick-and-mortar retail operations, secondary and primary labels may fuse, taking on shared responsibility for enhancing a brand’s image. Color labels can also help introduce organization and order into the inventory management process, helping to categorize products and improve picking accuracy, ensuring the right products and the right quantities get delivered to customers on time.

Integrating on-demand color for food labeling

On-demand color labeling technology is easy and cost-effective to adopt. Manufacturers that currently have a thermal transfer printer ZPL-based solution in their production line should choose a color printer that has a ZPL emulator. This feature allows the printer to be plugged directly into existing systems and software workflows. Then, instead of using pre-printed color label stock, the color image can be loaded into the printer’s memory. At run time, this color background will be merged with the monochrome ZPL data to produce a full-color label on demand.

Whether it is to adapt to changes to the Nutrition Facts label or to communicate the key attributes of a product, food manufacturers need reliable technologies that keep labeling operations simple and efficient.

Andy Scherz is senior product manager at Epson America Inc. and Larry Corrado, is president at Ideal Print Solutions.

Epson is a global technology leader dedicated to connecting people, things and information with its original efficient, compact and precision technologies. With a lineup that ranges from inkjet printers and digital printing systems to 3LCD projectors, smart glasses, sensing systems and industrial robots, the company is focused on driving innovations and exceeding customer expectations in inkjet, visual communications, wearables and robotics. 

Ideal Print Solutions is a globally recognized company that designs and implements efficient labeling systems that include software, scanners and print on demand label printers at customer sites worldwide. IPS also specializes in manufacturing high quality, digitally produced labels and packaging for those customers that currently outsource their labeling needs.  The company has been the industry leader in barcoding, data collection, and labeling solutions for over a decade.