From Label to Table: An Interview with Xaq Frohlich

From Label to Table: An Interview with Xaq Frohlich

Emily Contois

Do you read food labels in the grocery store? Even if you don’t, you’ll want to read Xaq Frohlich’s new book From Label to Table: Regulating Food in America in the Information Age, out from the University of California Press. Starting in the 1930s and progressing to the present, Frohlich, Associate Professor of History of Technology at Auburn University, documents the trends, events, and regulatory regimes that led to the food label’s development. He tackles a question at the heart of our modern, global, industrial food system: how can we trust our food and where it comes from?

The “facts” on an FDA-regulated food label posed one answer, but as From Label to Table argues, more information hasn’t resulted in more trust, transparency, or satisfaction for American eaters. Instead, the responsibility for a safe, trustworthy, and healthy food supply has largely shifted to individual consumers tasked with making the “right” food choices. At the same time, the label remade food in quantifiable nutritional terms that food companies could continually adjust, thus shaping us as consumers and citizens, even if we never gave the label more than a passing glance.

Cover of From Label to Table featuring a mock food label design.
Available now from University of California Press.

Emily: Congratulations on the publication of your book, Xaq. How did you come to this project? What first inspired you to research the history of food labeling?

Xaq: The origin of this project was a conversation I had with a friend of mine who was visiting from Europe. She was looking at a food package in my kitchen and saw the Nutrition Facts panel, and said, “That’s so American!” This was back before there was any similar uniform nutrition label in Europe, and I immediately knew what she meant. For her, it was typical of America for at least two reasons. It was a very scientistic way to think about food, with all those nutrition percentages, and she was probably imagining that Americans have all these fad diets based on the latest science, instead of a food culture more rooted in tradition. The black box also looked very legalistic, kind of like a warning label, and matched what a lot of Europeans imagine to be Americans’ litigious culture and absurd caveat emptor (“buyer beware”) safety labels that tell consumers to be careful about seemingly self-evident safety concerns. I decided to write a paper about why and how the FDA introduced the Nutrition Facts panel in the 1990s, but in the process, I discovered there was a much bigger story about how the FDA came to regulate food markets through informative labels. These replaced food standards, which reflected evolving legal, scientific, market, and political concerns.

Emily: I can’t help but judge your book by its great cover. Readers will likely recognize the design of the Nutrition Facts label, but I more deeply appreciate its black-lined box, Helvetica font, and selective bold text after reading your analysis in Chapter 5. How did this cover design come to be, and what do you hope it communicates to potential readers?

Xaq: What a fun question! Most of the credit for the cover design goes to the UC Press’s design team. I gave them two specific requests: one, that it feature the FDA’s 1990s Nutrition Facts label, which is important in my book, and two, that it have colorful images of food on it. My motivation for the second request was pure marketing. As someone who studies the history of advertising, I’ve learned that colorful food sells. I figured it would be good to use that to sell my book’s story. I think the book cover works so well to grab the reader’s eye for the same reasons that I discuss in Chapter 5, that the design firm working with FDA sought to make the Nutrition Facts label function as a “government brand,” something that stands apart from the colorful (and questionable) marketing of the rest of the food package. I hope the book cover tells readers they will finally get the history behind this ubiquitous and familiar label. But it’s more than that. My book explains why its “just-the-facts” design is not the full story, because behind this seemingly objective label, there was a lot of decision-making and biased values about what consumers should know and needed to know about their food.

A woman examines a food label. A 1993-style label is superimposed over the image.
Consulting an FDA food label in the 1990s. (Courtesy U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Flickr)

Emily: Advocates and consumers often think of the food label as a way to ensure transparency and accountability from food companies. But you rightfully assert that “food companies will game any food labeling system” (191), and show how these labels actually obscure more than they reveal. How did this come to be the case?

Xaq: One of the key arguments of this book is that labels are not simply a window into food. Information requires interpretation, and choices by experts about a label’s design involve biases and tradeoffs. Labels don’t liberate consumers from experts, they make them more dependent on them. This also means labels can be designed in ways that make it less clear to consumers how food is produced. A good example is the recent “bioengineered” or BE food label, which was clearly intended to make it less obvious what products are GMO-free. Even so-called “clean label” foods, which have fewer ingredients and are thus supposed to be more “natural,” can in practice be quite the opposite.

The more I study the history of food regulation and markets, the further back in time I go, the more I find examples of food fraud, deceptive marketing, and misleading advertisements. It is safe to say that food producers have been gaming whatever regulatory system is in place since time immemorial. I don’t want readers to take this cynically. It doesn’t mean regulation doesn’t work. It simply means that producers adapt markets around the regulations in place, and the information revolution hasn’t changed this. Food labeling rules are often less important for how consumers read them, as a knowledge fix, and more significant for how they drive industry to reformulate foods whether or not consumers read or understand them.

Emily: Your book struck a number of interdisciplinary chords that resonated with me: food studies, critical nutrition and health studies, history of advertising and consumption, food media and design—and the list goes on. How did you approach interdisciplinarity in this project methodologically, and with regard to the various audiences you seek to influence?

Xaq: Yes! And I’d add legal history, too, since an important thread in my book is changing legal norms about liability and personal responsibility for risk or evolving regulatory standards for what a consumer’s “reasonable expectations” would be about a food or health product. People who study food law often say that it is an interdisciplinary practice because food is about so many different things: product safety, environmental risk, administrative procedures, and, as you point out, nutrition and health. In some ways, I integrated these different disciplinary perspectives by simply following the story of the food label as it surfaced in FDA policies over time and seeing who showed up to those debates. When a food company’s lawyers argued about FDA rules, I looked into what legal issues concerned them. When medical professionals debated whether to back a new health claim on food labels, I explored their changing ideas of diet and risk and their understanding of the patient-as-consumer. By making this book the biography of a medium, the food label, I could show how all these different frameworks and interests met at the package interface and shaped what went on the label. I also hope that by toning down the jargon and trying to explain these diverse interests in broad terms, this is a book that can speak back to those different audiences, including the curious food consumer, to explain how food labeling shapes policymaking in both good and bad ways.

Emily: I underlined one of your great sentences near the end of the book: “We are starving for knowledge about our food on a full stomach of information” (194). What are the key lessons you hope readers take from your book when it comes to our food system, our relationships with food and health, and the possibilities and perils of the information age?

Xaq: One of the great misconceptions of the information age for food is thinking that consumers simply want or need more information about where their food comes from or how it was produced to feel okay about it. This misunderstands the nature of trust. What I argue in the book is that trust is not simply about proof, but instead is relational. In pre-industrial foodways, people usually knew who produced their food, and therefore knew whether they could trust them. The great challenge with industrial foodways, and especially with packaged foods, is that trust must be built on anonymous, even impersonal relationships. Branding is a private tool companies use to do this. Informative labels are another. But ultimately, if you do not trust the people who produce your food, a food label, no matter how informative, won’t solve that. So I hope my book serves as a warning to activists and policymakers that what consumers need is not just better labels. They need people and institutions actively working to build and maintain consumer trust in how their food is made.

Featured image caption: Woman customer and storekeeper standing beside stocked shelves in grocery store, c. 1925-1930. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Emily Contois is Associate Professor of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa. She is the author of Diners, Dudes & Diets: How Gender & Power Collide in Food Media & Culture (2020) and co-editor of Food Instagram: Identity, Influence & Negotiation (2022). She completed her PhD in American Studies at Brown University and holds an MA in American Studies from Brown, an MPH focused in Public Health Nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University.