A look at food and power with Xaq Frohlich

photo of Xaq Frolich

A new year usually brings about new resolves to make dietary changes or to give up certain foods in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. Food plays a central role as a foundation of life, and food is something we all think about every day. There are entire networks and magazines devoted to food featuring amazing cooks and meals. But what about the politics of food? What about the history of food? What about the power of food? These are topics Xaq Frohlich explores with his students during class. Frohlich is a specialist on the history of food regulation and food science and technology, and assistant professor in our Department of History. He is currently teaching a history class called “Food and Power,” which examines the history of the transformations in our foodways and food infrastructures that have shaped food politics today. We asked him some questions about this class, the book he’s working on, and about those resolutions so many of us make to eat healthier.  

How did you first become interested in food studies? 

My interest in food studies goes back a long time. It started when I lived in London (1999-2000). My flat mates were Muslim and we had all kinds of really interesting conversations about how they try to keep Halal, their sort of equivalent to kosher. That got me interested generally in food. Also, I've lived abroad a lot. The common conversations you have of cross-cultural comparison where you're at, and you're noticing people have different concerns about safety and food in this country than in my own country. At the time there was a big debate about genetically modified foods in Europe, and there wasn't in United States, and so that got me interested in these questions about what makes certain food subjects salient and politically important in one country, versus another? Are those cultural? Are those institutional? So, that was how I got into food studies before I went into graduate school and tried to actually study it as a field.

What does your research focus on, primarily? 

I am currently working on a book and my interest is looking at the Food and Drug Administration's nutrition label that rose out of different conversations I had with friends from different countries. About 10 to 15 years ago, I had a friend visiting from Europe. They looked at this nutrition information on the cereal box and they said, ‘this is so typically American.’ I knew what they meant. They meant that it was scientific. From a European point of view, food isn't scientific. Food is cultural, or traditional. I discovered that it was actually a very important tool for the Food and Drug Administration for a much bigger concern about marketplaces and regulations. So it first became a PhD project and it is now what I'm looking at for the book manuscript. But, it started with this kind of conversation about, what is American about this label?

How is it that you are in the Department of History, as opposed to nutrition science? 

This project has been a story of me being pulled further and further back in time, to understand the politics of it. Initially, I looked at the nutrition facts panel, which was in the 1990's. I was interested in this question about, what was the political environment in recent history that led to this thing we have today? I looked at concerns about deregulation and pressures on the Food and Drug Administration in the 1980's. The real contribution in my work in historiography is probably in the context of looking at the 1970's as a moment where people were very cynical about political intuitions. They were seeking a lot of market-based solutions to the social and political concerns. Again, I could see this because I got pulled further back to the '50s and '60s, with the older form of regulations. So, it was one of these stories where I just kept tracing the story back in time. Then, putting what I was finding into dialog with historical research, being done in those different periods.

How do students respond to all this information in your class? 

What I like about doing food history with my students is that I often tell them that the past is kind of like studying abroad. You have your own cultural ideas that you aren't even aware of until you go to this foreign country and suddenly things look different, people act different and they have different opinions. The same thing happens when you take them into the past. Students don't even think about how real and important food terms are –these molecules like saturated fats, or properties like calories - to them, talking about the food in those terms seems totally natural and normal. One of my favorite classes is where you look at meat, and how much our supply of meat has changed, and therefore our idea of what is meat. The great example of that is with chicken. 

Why chicken? 

I usually have my students read about the chicken industry because in the 1940s, Americans ate chicken pretty much in only one form, which was as a whole roast-chicken on Sunday. What we read about is how certain chicken processors, in particular Purdue, developed the techniques to actually disassemble the chicken, which required a lot of technological innovations. But, at the same time, developed marketing to convince consumers that they would want to buy chicken in parts. This was really important for changing the way people think about what chicken is. Because today, if you talk about chicken, the first thing you think of is usually the chicken breast. Purdue was trying to sell this idea of cheaper cuts. So this idea, with all of these changes in the chicken food supply, you now have people really thinking about chicken as something you can have daily, like a daily part of your diet. Or more importantly, don't think about it, it's so taken for granted.

If whole roasted chicken was a Sunday family meal, what did Americans eat the rest of the week? 

Pork was much more common to eat in the American diet, in pre-World War II. Since then it’s had a decline in sales. So, the rise in the consumption of chicken partly has to do with this sort of re-marketing of how chicken meat is sold. It partly has to do with it being seen as a healthy alternative to other cuts of meat. 

Do a lot of people come to you for nutritional advice?

Definitely. When I talk about the nutrition labeling project, almost invariably someone in the audience then wants to share their belief about nutrition, or to ask me my opinion about the latest diet trend. I have to be clear, and I tell them I'm not a nutrition scientist. My expertise is not actually in giving diet advice. The only advice I do feel like I can give, speaking with some kind of expertise is, as a historian looking at the cycles and fads around food and diet. I encourage humility, and caution about dramatic changes in people's beliefs or practices. When they ask me for advice, I tell them that it's not exactly my expertise, but I usually reiterate what diet experts say and continue to say, which is all things in moderation. No extreme dieting is ever good.

What can you say, as a food studies scholar, about New Year’s resolution and cutting certain things from diet? 

I do want to caution people about extreme dieting, about over emphasizing the idea of food as nutrition and ignoring the extent to which food is doing other things in our day to day life. I don't think any diet or any food regime should ignore the important role that food plays emotionally for people in terms of helping them with stress. Diets can also be socially distancing. If you're on any diet that puts a wall between you and others, I think that's really unhealthy and problematic –and probably not sustainable. I want to emphasize that point, but then without being cynical about it, I want to say that part of what makes dieting so successful is that it's about people trying to gain a sense of control over their life. It places them at the center as an agent at reforming themselves. I think this is very helpful and very powerful. Now, I will also be trying to get healthy. I always like the New Year's as an opportunity to kind of start again. But, I'm usually trying to do this in a very moderate way. I try my best to think of any changes in diet as not just about me and my control over my body, but actually something that is important for my family and has to have that in consideration.

Will you tell us a little about your book? 

It starts in the period after World War II and it runs all the way to the 1990's, so it's a long history compared to most books of this time period. It's a very cursory look at some of these periods. But you can really see a longer evolution in changes in how the public understands food, also in its relationship to an institution like the Food and Drug Administration. In addition, I include instances of food scandals or political faux pas, or sort of famous moments where suddenly these issues get public attention. Some of them are just odd things like Reagan's administration classifying ketchup as a vegetable, or Nixon making a comment about hotdogs. I hope to have a draft finished in 2018, which means it might appear on the market in 2019. That's my current timeline.    

For more information about Dr. Frohlich, please click here.  
Written by Vicky Santos, director of external affairs in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University 

Last Updated: January 30, 2018