19 min

From Label to table: Regulating Food in America The Leading Voices in Food

    • Health & Fitness

How did the Nutrition Facts label come to appear on millions of food products in the U.S.? As Auburn University historian, Xaq Frohlich, reveals in his new book, "From Label to Table: Regulating Food in America in the Information Age," these seemingly innocuous strips of information reveal the high stakes politics that can help determine what we eat and why. In today's podcast, Frohlich will explore popular ideas about food, diet, and responsibility for health that have influenced what goes on the Nutrition Facts panel and who gets to decide that.
Interview Summary
 
I'm really happy to have you on today's podcast. So, why don't we just jump right in. What would you say are the key historical moves in the food policy arena with respect to labeling?
 
One of the things I talk about in this book is an informational turn in food politics. And what I'm specifically referring to there is a shift since the 1970s from an older way that the Food and Drug Administration approached regulating the market to its current focus on informative labeling. So, at the beginning of my book and at the beginning of the story, in the 1930s, 1940s, the FDA was trying to handle this big market full of lots of different products, especially packaged and processed foods. And under the legislation in the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, authorized food standards. And the idea was that for any mass-produced food, they would hold hearings. People would say, "This is what we think the food should look like." They would then publish the standards, which would look kind of like a list of ingredients and ranges of the ingredients they could use, and then say, "Okay, all foods have to be the standard form of food. If not, we will either remove them from the market or call them imitation." And this was a system they used for decades, and it created a lot of problems. Then, late 1960s people started to get unhappy about this. There was this big turning point connected to the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health where Nixon administration brought together lots of nutrition scientists. And one of the conclusions that came out of that is we need to change the FDA's system. And so, in the early 70s, the Food and Drug Administration says, "We're going to pivot away from these food standards and start focusing on informative labels." This is when you get the requirement of ingredient labeling on all foods, including standard foods, and you also get the first voluntary nutrition information label. My book looks at this change in strategies away from standardizing foods towards standardizing information about foods and creating these kinds of consumer-oriented information labels.
 
I love the fact that you helped us understand this idea of the information age, because once you read that and think, "Oh, well you're talking about something about the internet," but it's even more foundational about how we communicate what is a product. I found it really fascinating to read in your book where you talked about what I perceive to be really laborious conversations around what exactly is peanut butter or some other product. I mean, it seems like that took up a lot of space. Do you think that was ultimately productive? Is that the reason why we see this information change? Or was there something important about that effort on its own?
 
So, there were advantages and disadvantages of the old food standards approach. One of the advantages is that everybody who wanted to raise an issue was invited to attend those hearings. This meant that you could have really colorful exchanges. There is one woman who ran a homemaker's association who would show up and she would get a lot of attention because she was very colorful in her criticisms of proposed standards. It could be a very democratic space in that sense. On the other hand, they could run on for years. And there were contentious hearings where you would have dozens of lawyers from differen

How did the Nutrition Facts label come to appear on millions of food products in the U.S.? As Auburn University historian, Xaq Frohlich, reveals in his new book, "From Label to Table: Regulating Food in America in the Information Age," these seemingly innocuous strips of information reveal the high stakes politics that can help determine what we eat and why. In today's podcast, Frohlich will explore popular ideas about food, diet, and responsibility for health that have influenced what goes on the Nutrition Facts panel and who gets to decide that.
Interview Summary
 
I'm really happy to have you on today's podcast. So, why don't we just jump right in. What would you say are the key historical moves in the food policy arena with respect to labeling?
 
One of the things I talk about in this book is an informational turn in food politics. And what I'm specifically referring to there is a shift since the 1970s from an older way that the Food and Drug Administration approached regulating the market to its current focus on informative labeling. So, at the beginning of my book and at the beginning of the story, in the 1930s, 1940s, the FDA was trying to handle this big market full of lots of different products, especially packaged and processed foods. And under the legislation in the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, authorized food standards. And the idea was that for any mass-produced food, they would hold hearings. People would say, "This is what we think the food should look like." They would then publish the standards, which would look kind of like a list of ingredients and ranges of the ingredients they could use, and then say, "Okay, all foods have to be the standard form of food. If not, we will either remove them from the market or call them imitation." And this was a system they used for decades, and it created a lot of problems. Then, late 1960s people started to get unhappy about this. There was this big turning point connected to the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health where Nixon administration brought together lots of nutrition scientists. And one of the conclusions that came out of that is we need to change the FDA's system. And so, in the early 70s, the Food and Drug Administration says, "We're going to pivot away from these food standards and start focusing on informative labels." This is when you get the requirement of ingredient labeling on all foods, including standard foods, and you also get the first voluntary nutrition information label. My book looks at this change in strategies away from standardizing foods towards standardizing information about foods and creating these kinds of consumer-oriented information labels.
 
I love the fact that you helped us understand this idea of the information age, because once you read that and think, "Oh, well you're talking about something about the internet," but it's even more foundational about how we communicate what is a product. I found it really fascinating to read in your book where you talked about what I perceive to be really laborious conversations around what exactly is peanut butter or some other product. I mean, it seems like that took up a lot of space. Do you think that was ultimately productive? Is that the reason why we see this information change? Or was there something important about that effort on its own?
 
So, there were advantages and disadvantages of the old food standards approach. One of the advantages is that everybody who wanted to raise an issue was invited to attend those hearings. This meant that you could have really colorful exchanges. There is one woman who ran a homemaker's association who would show up and she would get a lot of attention because she was very colorful in her criticisms of proposed standards. It could be a very democratic space in that sense. On the other hand, they could run on for years. And there were contentious hearings where you would have dozens of lawyers from differen

19 min

Top Podcasts In Health & Fitness

Huberman Lab
Scicomm Media
On Purpose with Jay Shetty
iHeartPodcasts
Feel Better, Live More with Dr Rangan Chatterjee
Dr Rangan Chatterjee: GP & Author
ZOE Science & Nutrition
ZOE
Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris
Ten Percent Happier
Passion Struck with John R. Miles
John R. Miles