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‘Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know’ about the Nutrition Facts label

Associate Professor of History Xaq Frohlich

How did the Nutrition Facts label come to appear on millions of everyday American household food products? Associate Professor of History Xaq Frohlich’s book, “From Label to Table: Regulating Food in America in the Information Age,” explains the political, scientific and economic power struggles that led to the ever-present food label.


What is the purpose of the food label? How does it represent a historical relationship between government, industry and consumer?

There are actually two different uses of the food label. On the one hand, what people tend to focus on is the food label as a tool that industry or the government can use to speak to consumers. Now that we have packaged and processed foods, we aren't able to look at foods and see self-evident aspects of them. The package is an opportunity for the manufacturer or the government to say: this is what you need to know. That's a consumer-facing use of the label.

The other is part of the packaging and that is part of the supply chain that companies use for getting food from one place to the next. Sometimes, that creates a tension. In the case of date labeling, for example, suppliers want to know how long the food has been in the supply chain. They want to have that information. They don't necessarily want the consumer to have that.

Today, there's a big debate about food waste, and part of the problem is that the retailer needs to know the sell-by date, when consumers should buy the food in order for it to be fresh. That's different than the use-by date that consumers want to know. At what point do I need to throw this out because it's no longer good? And that dual use of the label creates a lot of problems. You also see this with nutrition labeling. This question about what consumers should know and what they don't need to know comes up a lot in policy circles.

How does a grocery staple like milk or margarine represent how the FDA defined a food's identity?

Probably the best example of a food group that represents the change in how the FDA thinks about food and regulates food is dairy. In the early 1900s, dairy products like milk or cream, were seen to be really good and high value, and the value was in particular in the fats.

At the time, processed foods were introducing competition through things like margarine, which was using other kinds of fats to create a butter-like product. Or what were known as filled milk products, where you take a dairy product, you replace the fats in there with vegetable fats. The FDA saw this as a cheap imitation, and they wanted to make sure that regulation and labeling made that clear, that these are not the “good” dairy products you want.

America also went through a nutrition transition. People were getting too much nutrition, eating too much food. Especially in the 1960s, some scientists start saying, hey, some of these dairy products aren't really great, they have lots of saturated fats, and potentially, margarines could be even healthier. So,  Americans start shifting away from these natural dairy products and start looking at these alternative products.

In the 1970s, the FDA pivots. Instead of getting pulled into debates about what are “good” foods and “bad” foods, it introduces nutrition labeling to encourage these new products as long as they're nutritionally good.

Since then, you get a lot more of these dairy products designed for diet food markets, and you also get the idea of even dairy being an ingredient, because instead of the focus being on natural and authentic, it's about designing foods for specific consumer concerns like health.

How have consumers changed over time?

There's a shift from consumers eating foods to reading foods. Because instead of understanding food as something that you taste and eat, you're also trying to think about these properties that you don't taste. Like is it healthy? Is it ethical? And so, I think that shift in how we get our food comes with a shift in the consumer. You go from what the FDA focuses on, the idea of an ordinary consumer who may think that food should be obvious and self-evident, to this informed consumer. The idea that you need to let them know more, you hope that they're literate, and that they're making these kinds of decisions.

How well does the Nutrition Facts panel inform the consumer? What responsibility does it transfer to the individual?

Before the 1970s, the way the FDA addressed problems in the food market was what I would call an activist state. If there was a bad actor or a company who was taking advantage of consumers, they would litigate them, take them to court. They also created food standards with this idea that this is helping protect the basic standards for consumers. Since the 1970s, they've shifted it. That took a lot of resources, and now it's much more focused on creating informative labels and saying, you, the consumer, now should make these kinds of decisions about what's safe or not.

The nutrition label will give you reliable information. So, it is a shift to the idea of the FDA as an information broker. This sounds like a consumer empowerment, but instead what you're getting is more and more information that requires the consumer to make a decision about their own safety. This is a burden placed on consumers to be healthy and safe instead of the FDA or government deciding those decisions.

Consumers have to make this different balance of decisions. I think it's left consumers really dissatisfied. We're overburdened and we're not happy because there's no win-win decision in all this. This is why you have this frustration that we wish that the government and the industry was responding to the needs before it gets to the label.


About the expert:

Xaq Frohlich is an associate professor of history at Auburn University. His research focuses on the historical intersections of science, law and markets, and how the three have shaped our modern, everyday understanding of food, risk and responsibility. His work explores questions relating to consumerism and the changing relationships between the state, experts and the public in the production of everyday knowledge. His first book, “From Label to Table: Regulating Food in America in the Information Age,” was published by the University of California Press in 2023.

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