Food Labeling in the “Affluent Society”


A review of Accounting for Taste: Regulating Food Labeling in the “Affluent Society”, 1945-1995, by Xaq Frohlich.

Xaq Frohlich’s dissertation Accounting for Taste explores how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulation of food markets in the latter half of the twentieth century responded to changes in the social, political, and medical relationship between increasingly prosperous Americans and their food. In the decades after World War II, the country’s agricultural output soared. Overnourishment became a more pressing public health problem than undernourishment, and physicians came to see diet as a significant contributor to various chronic diseases, especially cardiovascular disease, and the balance between personal and collective responsibility for health shifted toward the former. In response to these changes, the FDA established a number of new food policies. Beginning in the 1970s, the agency abandoned “standards of identity” for foods, such as “peanut butter” or “tomato soup”, and instead required food producers to provide ingredient lists, nutrition information, and health claims based on scientific research so that informed consumers could make healthful choices.

Chapter 1 examines the American scientist Ancel Keys’ (1904-2004) postwar thesis about the correlation between dietary saturated fat and heart disease, and how it articulated a new framework for public health nutrition. The very abundance that made daily staples out of once precious foods, such as meat, shifted expert attention from insufficient nourishment to the health problems associated with excessive consumption. This shift led to increasing medicalization of the diet and an emphasis on personal responsibility for health based on restraint and self-control. In Chapter 2, Frohlich argues that Keys’ research, and the American Heart Association’s subsequent promotion of low-fat diets, engendered considerable debate in the 1960s among both medical organizations and regulatory bodies over the mass-marketing of public health information. Frohlich uses three cases studies — vitamin supplementation, artificial sweeteners, and “low fat” products such as vegetable oils — to explore new approaches to advertisement based on this new concept in public health nutrition. He details the policy debates occurring in the FDA over the classification and regulation of such marketing, especially with respect to the distinction between standard foods and those intended for consumers with special dietary needs.

Chapter 3 examines three pivotal events — the FDA hearings on “special dietary” foods (1968-1970), the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health (1969), and the ban on cyclamate as an artificial sweetener (1969) — to illustrate the divergences between governmental food regulations and public understandings of food, diet, and health. It was in this period, Frohlich contends, that food policy became intensely politicized. This was a reflection of the numerous interest groups with a stake in the debates, including food producers, government regulators, medical experts, and consumer advocates. Chapter 4 relates how the FDA’s regulation of food products shifted over the 1970s from the imposition of standard definitions to the requirement that producers provide ingredient information on their packaging and the encouragement of voluntary nutrition labeling. This shift reflected the neo-liberal, deregulatory turn in national politics and the increasingly common sentiment among both experts and the public that consumers should be able to decide for themselves what to eat.

Chapter 5 explores the process through which the “Nutrition Facts” label became a required, standardized means of communicating health information to consumers in the early 1990s. Frohlich shows that the food industry, regulatory agencies, health authorities, and consumer advocates all contributed to the label’s ultimate form and content, and he argues that this reinforced the already growing trend towards personal responsibility for nutrition health and the idea that all aspects of the diet are to a greater or lesser extent manifestations of risk.

Xaq Frohlich’s work is a key contribution to Science and Technology Studies and the history of health policy. Although there is a large body of work on the influence of Ancel Keys and the low-fat diet in the cultural history literature, Frohlich shows in detail how that research moved from the laboratory to the arena of political discourse through the regulatory process. Deftly avoiding the trope of an incompetent or ineffective FDA, the dissertation reveals the pivotal role played by the agency in negotiating between numerous interest groups. By focusing on one specific development, the advent of nutrition and ingredient labeling, Frohlich is able to explore complex and mercurial issues — the balance between personal and community responsibility for health, the relationship between producer, regulator, and consumer, and the medicalization of food and diet — without resorting to vague generalities or divergent anecdotes. Accounting for Taste is an excellent dissertation, and one hopes that it will be the basis for a book in the near future.

Andrew Ruis
Department of Medical History and Bioethics
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Primary Sources

Personal papers of Franklin C. Bing, William Darby, D. Mark Hegsted, Peter Barton Hutt, Ancel B. Keys, Jean Mayers, Esther Peterson, and Paul Dudley White.
Records of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the National Academy of Science’s Food and Nutrition Board, and the American Heart Association.
Government records covering the FDA, the USDA, and the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health.
Interviews with Burkey Belser, Henry Blackburn, Johanna Dwyer, Robert Earl, Peter Greenwald, D. Mark Hegsted, Regina Hildwine, Peter Barton Hutt, Donna Porter, F. Edward Scarbrough, and Virginia L. Wilkening.

Dissertation Information

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2011. 493pp. Primary Advisor: Deborah Fitzgerald.


Image: Front cover of The Label Tells the Story, a pamphlet published in 1964 by the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

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