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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.



Brandon Etheredge:

In the culinary justice system, there are three separate but equally important groups, the Food Criminals, the Poison Squad, and the Peanut Butter Grandmother. These are their stories.

Okay, on a serious note, when I decided to do this episode of the podcast, I had no idea what I was getting into. Dr. Xaq Frohlich's new book, From Label to Table: Regulating Food in America and the Information Age is a thrilling account of the history and characters that have shaped the FDA's regulation of food in America. So grab a can, find a label. It's time for another episode of the Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know podcast.

Welcome back to another episode of The Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know podcast. I'm your host, Brandon Etheridge and joining me today is Dr. Xaq Frohlich, an associate professor of history at Auburn University and author of the new book, From Label to Table: Regulating Food in America in the Information Age. Dr. Frohlich, thanks for joining us. So Dr. Frohlich, let's start at the beginning. Why did the FDA begin making policies about food standards? What market and political forces were at play in the early 1900s that led to those standards?

Xaq Frohlich:

Yeah. So one thing to keep in mind at the beginning of the 1900s, the food markets were very different than they were today and they were starting to change. It used to be that people would buy food from someone that they knew, that had an ongoing relationship with that person. They'd have a better idea of how food was made or they'd buy food in bulk or do a lot of cooking themselves in their own house. In the early 1900s you start to get a lot more packaged and processed foods and the beginning of a kind of national market. And this meant that people didn't know where their foods were coming from. And this was a period where people had a lot of concern about what was called adulteration. If you have food made by someone you don't know, were they doing something to kind of modify it, change it to make it cheaper, to take advantage of you. And so you had people responding with concerns about how do we improve regulations to ensure the purity and integrity of food.

By the 1930s, the FDA had regulations for that, but you start to get big branded companies making national products and they start focusing on how to improve their brand quality and try to develop a relationship with the customer on that. And at the time, they were pushing for standards. They were needing them to ensure in the supply chain that they had good quality ingredients for their foods, but they didn't want to have the FDA regulating them on that. And consumer activists were upset about this. They felt like the big manufacturers had good quality food, they knew what they were getting. Consumers should have the same kinds of protection. So in 1938, Congress passed what was the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. This is what gave the FDA the authority to establish food standards. And that was the kind of beginning of the story that I tell in this book, which is how the FDA is trying to make sure that the food market is safe and good for average Americans.

Brandon Etheridge:

Okay, so let's talk about some of the consumer activists in this story. And I'll be honest, this caught me off guard when I started reading. I mean, there's the Poison Squad, the Peanut Butter Grandmother, the Code Breakers. I was reading it with a coworker. We said, "Wait, are we reading a book about food labels? Is this a murder mystery? What is happening here?" It was really interesting. So talk about some of those characters that were activists during this period.

Xaq Frohlich:

Yeah. One of these that I try to argue in this book is that this is not just a story of a kind of top-down FDA telling the industry or telling consumers this is what you need to know. There's a lot of bottom-up activism. In the early 1900s there is a famous regulator, Harvey Wiley, who is within the government agency, but he's trying to appeal to the hearts and minds of America. And so journalists start popularizing his kind of what is called the Poison Squad. These tests they do on foods where they say our food is not safe. He's trying to lobby the public to put pressure on Congress to pass legislation for that. In the 1930s, you have the National Federation of House Makers, a women's organization where they're trying to lobby to have better regulations to support housewives and their decisions about consumer products.

The funnest stories I think the Code Breaker story, for example, relates to a gap that existed between the supermarkets trying to build a relationship with consumers, but also trying to better control their stocking and inventory. And a group of housewives realize that on the packages of foods, they're on codes that basically tell the supermarket when the food is going off. They're kind of sell by date, but they don't say that on the packaging for the consumer. And so what these women do is they get organized, they go into the store and they start breaking the code by figuring out when people are removing them off the shelves. And then they basically write a book explaining to the housewife, this is when this code means that the food is going to be off. And they start sort of giving this away at the cost of mailing it, and they get national attention and they start saying, we need to have open dating. Like tell consumers when this food is going to go off on the packages and don't just use it for supermarket shelves.

You have more formal examples of this kind of consumer activism. Esther Peterson is a well-known consumer activist who in the 1970s gets hired by a supermarket Giant Food, and she basically tells them we need to be doing pro-consumer stuff. So they introduce nutrition labeling as a kind of experiment. It's very popular. That helps create a kind of groundswell of support for nutrition labeling, which leads to the first nutrition label in 1970s that the FDA introduces.

The other interesting thing in this story is the kind of shift of who is the consumer activist. From the 1900s up to the 1960s, you have these housewife organizations or even people like Ruth Desmond, who's this Peanut Butter Grandma, as people dub her. She sort of single-handedly organizes and goes to the food standards hearings to kind of lobby for pro-consumer interests in food standards. But starting 1970s, you get a move away from the housewife and you get other groups more focused on health, nutrition. And so since then, the Center for Science in the Public Interest with Michael Jacobson is a kind of really prominent organization focused more on biomedical issues for the consumer.

Brandon Etheridge:

So the Poison Squad, I want to go back to them for a minute. These are government employees that are running these experiments. Tell me what exactly they were doing.

Xaq Frohlich:

So Harvey Wiley was older. He'd been around in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is where the FDA was originally. And he was a kind of analytic chemist interested in uncovering the new chemicals like bark acid and such being used as preservatives in foods, in processed and canned foods. And what he does around 1905 is, he gathers some young people working there and basically volunteer to start eating this food and then he kind of records it. And this is what the journalists later call sort of the Poison Squad to get attention to what they're doing. And so it's not the kind of rigorous science of testing that we have today, but he uses it as a way of promoting the awareness that industry is using these new chemicals and they're untested and they might be unhealthy for people.

Brandon Etheridge:

So how do modern debates about food such as GMOs and organic food echo what the FDA has done in the past?

Xaq Frohlich:

What's important to keep in mind is that there is a kind of long history of these debates in policy circles. So if we take the example of genetically modified foods, one of the things I talk about in From Label to Table is how well before the 1990s, which is when the FDA starts looking at these new products and asking the question do we want labels, you have similar kinds of debates about what are called risk labels. Like if you say that this is a potential risk, should you be labeling the ingredient, should you be labeling for consumers to make the decision about it?

A classic example of this is irradiated foods. In the 1980s, there was a lot of interest in irradiation as a way of kind of pasteurizing food. Consumers don't like this. If you label it, they will not buy it. And policymakers at the FDA see that and say, "Okay, we don't want this to happen again with [inaudible 00:08:43] foods. And so they make the decision that we're going to discourage labeling. And that becomes the kind of U.S. position for a couple of decades before sort of recently where you get this change and now they say, "Okay, we can do this labeling."

Brandon Etheridge:

Have you observed that the information labels influence consumer and market decision-making?

Xaq Frohlich:

Yes. This is a kind of interesting thing. So one of the questions I'm always asked when I give talks about food labeling is do people even read them? And people are always trying to say, "Oh, I don't think anyone reads this." Or you have people who are very actively reading them. And I would say, yes, there are people who actively read labels, active consumers. In the case of nutrition labeling, they're calorie counting. They're concerned about particular nutrients. Also, it's people on the first time they buy a product often will look more closely at the label. In general, people don't spend a lot of time on the labels. And also industry spends a lot of money trying to figure out how consumers use these labels and how changes will affect their consumers. And a lot of what they find is that consumers are confused, they're inconsistent, they spend very little time on them.

One of the things I try to make clear in this book though, is that even when you don't read the label, changes on the label change your food and affect you. And the reason is that the food industry's concern about how those active consumers are seeing new information, lead them to reformulate foods. So when the 1990 reforms happened and the Nutrition Facts label was added on to all these different foods, industry spent several years reformulating their classic products, reducing saturated fats, reducing sodium. And so even if you weren't reading the Nutrition Facts label, you were eating a different product.

Same thing happened again in 2000s with trans fats. As the industry was lobbying saying, "We don't want to have the trans fats labeling, we don't like this," they were finding ways of removing trans fats from their foods. And once they had, they said, "Hey, let's do this. Now we have zero trans fats. We'll put that on the label." So one of the arguments I make in this book is that these labels have more than just one purpose. They're for consumers who learn about the product, but they also are kind of infrastructure for the industry in making decisions about how it designs its foods.

Brandon Etheridge:

So let's get kind of in the weeds and get practical for a minute. What should everyone know about the Nutrition Facts panel and how to view it and how to actually use that information?

Xaq Frohlich:

Yeah, this is a great question. How do you read this Nutrition Facts label that the FDA designed? One of the first things I would say is that you should not treat it like a precise instrument. A good example of this is the figures on the Nutrition Facts label are based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet. And so I like to say, where did this number 2,000 come from? And originally when the FDA was trying to make the decision about this, they actually wanted it to be higher because they wanted it to be the average calories for everyone. The average male has a higher need of around 2,300. The average female has a lower need around 1,800. And so they were going to pick a average of those, and health organizations were concerned that this was going to lead people to get too much.

Eventually, they settled on this number 2,000, not because it was the average for Americans, but because they figured that if it was rounded, it would send the signal to people that this is not a precise number. And also it'd be easy to do math, which is to say that you should not be using Nutrition Facts panel as a kind of precise measure or advice for you. You should look up your own calorie needs. You should then adjust it accordingly.

The other thing I like to point out is that the Nutrition Facts panels encourages us to think about food as just being about nutrition when in fact food is about much more than just that. We use food to make connections in our community. We make decisions about the foods we eat based on those connections to the community. When you get too focused on health or diet, you threaten those kinds of ties to other people. Also, we think about health more broadly. When companies or the FDA do studies of how consumers use Nutrition Facts panels, one of the things they often point out as a kind of confusion is that consumers talk about the ingredients label. But it's not confusion that consumers think about health and ingredients because ingredients are another way of thinking about health.

So the nutrition label can cause us to get really narrowly focused on nutrients, calories, saturated fats and such, but in practice we look at food much more holistically. And I think that's actually important. We eat foods to feel good, not just physically, but also emotionally. And so I would tell people, don't get too narrowly focused on it. Remember that it's just a tool for comparing foods and making those kinds of decisions.

Brandon Etheridge:

Dr. Frohlich, thank you for spending some time with us and talking us through your new book. It is so interesting. To all of our listeners, From Label to Table is out now. It is a great read. So before you go, make sure to subscribe. You can find the link to purchase that book in our show notes of the podcast. Make sure you share it with your friends that you think would enjoy it. We'll see you next time on the Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know podcast.



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