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Where do nutrition labels come from?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently proposed new rules to change which foods can be labeled “healthy.” As the technologist Xaq Frohlich writes, the FDA’s emphasis on information conveyed to consumers on food packaging is a product of changes in US politics circa 1970. That is, there has been a shift away from directly regulating corporate behavior and toward empowering consumers to use their market power to influence companies. .

Initially, FDA’s core mission with food was to ensure that products were what they claimed to be. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 required officials to create standards for all mass-produced foods, using a system that began with a common “recipe.” By identifying the foods that are most likely to contain them and specifying the ingredients and ranges they may contain, it leaves room for companies to develop their own versions. Foods with ingredients other than standard recipes were labeled with punitive “counterfeit” labels.

Regulations have become more complex as food companies have introduced more and more complex foods. So-called diet foods and fortified products with artificial sweeteners can violate FDA regulations. In 1968 California Governor Ronald Reagan raised these concerns and defended vitamin C supplements, telling the government not to put sticky labels on my medicine bottles. I asked.

As such, Frohlich writes, the FDA has turned to interventions designed to empower consumers. In 1973, it reduced its use of the “copycat” label, stating that “it is not the agency’s business to try to reconcile the likes and dislikes of various individuals.” At the same time, companies wishing to advertise foods based on their health benefits introduced voluntary nutrition labeling, requiring the inclusion of a nutrition panel on the label.

Over the next two decades, this looser approach led to a proliferation of all kinds of new “diet” and “healthy” foods. Many have circumvented legal restrictions when advertising their power to fight disease. To address the many misleading claims that greeted shoppers in supermarkets, in the early 1990s, the FDA began requiring standardized nutrition labeling on all packaged foods. It was intended to be an educational tool, not just a source of information. This included the now-familiar “% Daily Intake” column, based on USDA estimates of how much of each nutrient the average American should roughly consume.

“Part of that power has been as a government brand that influences consumers on a subconscious level to make them aware that nutrition is everywhere, just like a label,” Frohlich writes.

As the CBS Nightly News reported in 1994, the label was “designed to make everyone an expert.” How well it worked when it came to actually improving the health of Americans is still the subject of debate today.

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Author: Zach Frolich

Social Studies of Science, vol. 47, No. 2 (April 2017), pp. 145-171

Sage Publications, Inc.