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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Wild Oats: The Oat Bran Craze 1988 to 1990
  5. Gruel Intentions: The NLEA and Quaker's Health Claim, 1990 to 1997
  6. Cash Crop: Leveraging Scientific Evidence 1997 to 2010
  7. Conclusion
  8. Abbreviations 
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Written Sources
  12. Secondary Sources
  13. Works Consulted Primary Sources
  14. Secondary Sources
  15. Appendix

Abstract:  Contemporary consumers have become accustomed to nutrition labels in the 20 y since they were federally mandated. However, “health claim” labels that link nutrients to disease prevention have a contentious history involving regulators, corporations, and the public. The “oat bran craze” of the late 1980s demonstrated these claims’ enormous profit potential, but also the need for more rigorous regulation. In response, the 1990 Nutrition Labeling Education Act created quantitative nutrition labels and qualitative “health claims” to summarize medical knowledge about specific foods. Quaker Oats was granted the first food-specific health claim in January 1997 when the Food and Drug Administration determined that consumption of soluble fiber from oats lowered risk of heart disease. The company subsequently made the oat health claim a central part of its strategy and has served as a model for other manufacturers seeking health claims. This article examines the institutional interactions and underlying values that made health claims desirable, legally possible, and profitable from the 1980s onward.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Wild Oats: The Oat Bran Craze 1988 to 1990
  5. Gruel Intentions: The NLEA and Quaker's Health Claim, 1990 to 1997
  6. Cash Crop: Leveraging Scientific Evidence 1997 to 2010
  7. Conclusion
  8. Abbreviations 
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Written Sources
  12. Secondary Sources
  13. Works Consulted Primary Sources
  14. Secondary Sources
  15. Appendix

“Oats supply what brains and bodies require.”

- Quaker Oats advertisement (1880)1

In 2005, readers of magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Cooking Light witnessed the opening of a bold new frontier. Advertisements offered the public a luscious, chewy oatmeal cookie, warm from the microwave. Oozing with chocolate chips, the cookie beckoned sweet tooths everywhere—to a healthy breakfast. No longer would lovers of a morning pastry struggle with guilt, Quaker Oats proclaimed:

Your childhood dreams have come true, you can have a chocolate chip cookie for breakfast. Indulge responsibly with Quaker's Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Breakfast Cookies. Made with whole grain Quaker Oats and sprinkled with chocolate chips, Quaker Breakfast Cookies are a good source of iron, calcium and fiber. Your mouth will think it's a chocolate chip cookie, but your body will know better.2

Whether or not one believes these advertising claims, why is nutrition being used to entice buyers of chocolate chip cookies?

As a quantitative, reductionist approach to food, nutrition allows scientists to discuss food in terms of discrete, experimentally verifiable components that can be linked to health. At the same time, contemporary marketers have found scientific expertise to be an especially convincing promotional tool. However, to consider only the breakfast cookie is to miss an underlying conceptual shift. Truly radical is the association between oats and heart health that makes Quaker's ad copy credible to consumers. This article chronicles the company's groundbreaking 20-y translation of nutrition science into successful consumer marketing.

The story of oatmeal, the first government-certified “health food,” illustrates the scientifically coded ways modern society approaches the interactions of commerce. The claim showed a new way to value a food product: it utilized scientific evidence to convince regulators and scientific language to sell to consumers. Quaker's claim added market value to sell more oatmeal, and more oat products. However, it also became important in the overall corporate strategy, constructing the manufacturer as socially responsible and responsive to consumer needs. Quaker as a brand seeks to be as wholesome as its products. The claim's impact on the actions and attitudes of industries, policymakers, and even academics illustrate the power of 2 paramount American cultural values, scientific expertise and capitalist commercialism, combined.

Many American consumers are amazed to find that the ubiquitous, black-and-white nutrition labels have only been universal since 1994.3 They are yet more surprised to learn that what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) terms “health claims” did not formally exist until 1997. Health claims are intended to be concise summaries of the nutritional research surrounding a food's effect on health, to “characteriz[e] the relationship between a food nutrient and the risk of a disease or health-related condition.”4 Manufacturers voluntarily print claims on their labels after completing a thorough scientific review by the FDA.

What makes health claims so valuable—and controversial—is that the information goes beyond advertising nutrients and attempts to assign a prophylactic role to the product, such as protection against osteoporosis or heart disease. While thousands of products advertise to the health conscious, only 16 food types (such as fluoridated water and low-sodium foods) meet the rigorous scientific standards for a health claim. The greater specificity achieved with health claims is a clear market advantage for businesses, but critics insist that it overstates the certainty of scientific knowledge and misleads consumers.

Despite the limited number of true FDA-recognized health claims, advertising about food's effects on human well-being is ubiquitous. In 1998, more than 25% of the 11000 plus new products were marketed based on their nutritional attributes.5 Sales have continued to increase; global revenues for nutrition-marketed food grew by an average of 15.8% per year between 2002 and 2007. This far outpaced overall food-sales growth of 2.9% per year, and indicates an important growth area for a slow growing, competitive industry.6

Beyond the current frequency of claim labels today, another reason consumers may be accustomed to health information on their food is the longstanding belief linking food to health in popular discourses. Attempts to understand food and its relationship to disease predate what we call “science” by millennia, but have taken readily to the experimental approach. Nutrition science today seems as popular among nonscientists as dietetic traditions once were. This broad cultural appreciation allowed advertisers throughout the 20th century to make oblique references to “wholesome” or “hearty” products without running afoul of the law.

Food health claims were initially prohibited by the FDA as illegal drug claims through the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.7 This first federal law, strengthened in 1938 with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C), resulted from a longstanding understanding from both consumer advocates and industrialists that regulation was necessary to gain consumer trust and ensure a fair marketplace. The law aimed to prevent consumers from being misled by scientific (or pseudoscientific) information; changes occurred in how scientists understood food's properties and in the degree to which that knowledge was transmitted to the public. Historian Rima Apple notes that “commercial firms were and are well aware of the power of scientific rhetoric in American culture,” though longstanding regulation made it difficult to use health claims in selling food.8

Ancient though the dietetic tradition may be, however, the modern history of diet and health knowledge is strikingly new. Mainstream consensus on the components of a healthy diet—expressed in measurable quantities of specific nutrients—was not attained and disseminated to the public until the late 1970s. Today, most nutritionists agree that Americans consume too much. Overconsumption is the cardinal dietary sin; saturated fat, sodium, refined carbohydrates, and other harmful nutrients are often particularly demonized. These admonishments have been tough to swallow for the food industry, to say the least. As both critics and company spokespeople will readily admit, the key to continued growth in the marketplace is increased sales: eating more, not less. Thus, the direction to eat more of a healthy food—containing fiber, monounsaturated fat, or any of a plethora of antioxidants, for example—has been embraced.

These conventions broke down in the early 1980s as a result of savvy collaboration between a cereal company (Kellogg) and a government agency (the Natl. Cancer Inst., or NCI). Kellogg's All-Bran advertised a claim in line with epidemiological evidence of the time, but in blatant violation of FDA rules. The Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees both the FDA and NCI, resolved the controversy by lifting the ban on health claim marketing. Apple believes that “the cultural authority of science sells,” and marketers were quick to utilize scientific language to promote products from cookies to margarine once restrictions were lifted.9 Yet, this powerful promotional tool held potential for abuse, through misrepresentation of scientific evidence or active ingredient content. Consumers expressed frustration, or even distrust, toward both industry and government regulators.10

In order to show how health claims function, this article shows the historical progression of claims throughout the last 25 y. Health claims emerged as commercially viable—and legal—in the late 1980s with cereal advertisements, but the deregulated environment led to a crisis in 1988 to 1990 as unscrupulous advertising touted the anticholesterol benefits of oat bran. The bran craze eventually crashed, but its effects live on in the Nutrition Labeling Education Act (NLEA) of 1990, which severely restricted the scope of health claims labeling but also institutionalized certification of those claims that the FDA deemed most valid. This certification process proved exceptionally valuable for those food marketers who could muster the scientific evidence to win approval. Quaker Oats, the first company to gain FDA certification, serves as a case study for how health claims can be leveraged for market advantage.

The approval was momentous for Quaker's public image and the company's overall strategy, establishing the brand as a leader in nutrition-focused foods. The claim's effects on shoppers’ nutrition knowledge, and consequently in improving the national diet, are more difficult to discern. However, in examining the arguments and assumptions present in debates over nutrition and the proper role of commerce in public health, observers can begin to historicize beliefs that may underlie their own modern attitudes. We may come to understand how American society values scientific expertise, and as a result how businesses derive commercial value from that faith.

Merely reacting to science could be chaotic; positive, prominent studies could build brands and pad profits, or destroy them if reported negatively in the media. On the other hand, the food industry saw that science that was properly interpreted and leveraged could be a promotional tool of unprecedented market power. Ernest Dichter, a designer of product packages, notes:

If one wants to act rationally, one must, at all costs, find a reason which makes the irrational seem rational. Some of what appears on the package—especially the words—are there to reassure consumers that their impulsive choice was also a sensible one. Thus, nutritional information on the package won't be emotionally neutral. Anything that's put on a package—even a bunch of scientific names and numbers—can trigger feelings as well as thoughts.11

The debates that surrounded food regulation in the late 20th century, and that came to a head in the campaign Quaker spearheaded for oats and heart health, essentially came down to unease over the possibility that scientific testimony's ability to sway consumer opinion might constitute added market value.

New added value did not necessarily entail a totally novel marketing approach. Nutrition marketing has occurred practically since the advent of national food advertising. Here again, Quaker had been the pioneer. The company's very first newspaper advertisement in 1879—also the national cereal industry's first—was a health pitch. “One pound of Quaker Oats builds as much muscle and bone as three pounds of beef,” it read. “Oats [ …] supply what brains and bodies require.”12 Despite more stringent regulations after 1906, the company continued to allude to the heartiness and good nutrition of its product in marketing. These advertising approaches were key to Quaker's growth, but too vague to be influential in modern advertising.

Two mutually reinforcing trends made a shift toward specificity possible in the 1990s. First, scientifically based health claims in the late 1990s were not only allowed, but explicitly certified by the federal government. Manufacturers may have strained to meet the FDA's stringent standards of proof, but the credibility of an approved health claim was highly useful. This phenomenon reinforced the second, an expanding public awareness and concern for nutrition. Consumers’ preoccupation with dietary health was made manifest in everything from newsweeklies to popular cartoons. The confluence of these 2 factors created what journalist Michael Pollan has referred to as the “age of Nutritionism.”13

If this is, indeed, the age of Nutritionism, it is worth exploring the values and desires that have made nutrition knowledge so important today. Surety about health and nutrition has become important to consumers, mainly as a result of rapid acceleration in the dissemination of (often contradictory) scientific evidence. In order to satisfy this felt need, the government stepped in to certify the science conducted on constituent parts of foods and their health effects.

This intervention reflected a belief by all parties concerned—consumers, companies, and regulators—that a review of science would produce an objective judgment on the interaction of food and health. Apple has noted that

The rhetorical power of science in our culture is incredibly potent, so potent that many people [have] wrapped themselves in the flag of science. [ …] Partisans of these controversies argue with contemporary science, with contradictory and contested science.14

The science may be controversial in a review board, but the results are not. Those products that are certified as a result of this process receive “added value” in the eyes of consumers, and, accordingly, manufacturers. What is quickly apparent, however, is that the objectivity of such science is as much a rhetorical tool (albeit an effective one) as it is a fact. Decisions on health claims’ validity are driven by expectations of American consumers, regulators, and companies regarding food, health, and how information linking 2 should be communicated. The importance of consumers’ choice to heed health information, in particular, has been overlooked in most prior histories of food regulation.

This article shows that, although the attitudes and laws surrounding health information about food have existed in flux for the last 100 y, health claims did not become institutionalized as effective, legal marketing until the 1980s. Until this time consumer values (chapter 1), regulatory priorities and paradigms (chapter 2), and corporate structure and strategy (chapter 3) had not coalesced to produce an optimally receptive environment. It will become apparent that the attitudes and institutional arrangements surrounding scientific evidence are crucially important in nutrition science.

The incredibly complex nature of biochemistry and physiology means that no conclusion can be intuitive, certain, or final. These seemingly exogenous factors therefore make scientific knowledge actionable in the here and now. In recognizing the often-ignored role of all participants in the debate in shaping consensus and applications of knowledge, it is hoped that this article will add a more realistic account of how corporate and government entities are shaped by public demand, as well as how these institutions’ actions shape public understandings of science.

The French gourmand Antoine Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once proposed “dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es”; tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.15 How much more revealing, in our modern “age of nutritionism,” to understand why we choose to eat what we do? If food is our most tangible link to the material world, the emergence of nutrition as a method of understanding our own bodies’ interactions with nutrition, science has made unprecedented progress toward the organization of our lives. And if the use of this knowledge (whether correct or incorrect) can effectively sell products, nutrition labeling constitutes a use of science at the crossroads of the modern human condition—nonliving food turning into living being, individuals forming market demographics, inert information taking on monetary value. On the front and side panels of cereal boxes, science figures powerfully in everyday lives. Modern consumers purchase and consume science for breakfast.

Wild Oats: The Oat Bran Craze 1988 to 1990

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Wild Oats: The Oat Bran Craze 1988 to 1990
  5. Gruel Intentions: The NLEA and Quaker's Health Claim, 1990 to 1997
  6. Cash Crop: Leveraging Scientific Evidence 1997 to 2010
  7. Conclusion
  8. Abbreviations 
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Written Sources
  12. Secondary Sources
  13. Works Consulted Primary Sources
  14. Secondary Sources
  15. Appendix

“What God has joined together, no man should put asunder. Put back the bran!”

- Sylvester Graham, Lectures on the Science of Human Life (1854)16

In the late 1980s, millions of Americans frantically consumed oat bran; it was, by all accounts, the most widespread health fad the nation had ever known.

Talk about buzzwords. It spawned hundreds of new products, tens of millions of dollars in sales, and created a national shortage of a grain once used to feed horses. All a company had to do was sprinkle a few flakes on its bread, doughnuts, potato chips, or even beer, slap the magic words “oat bran” on the label, and watch the cash roll in.17

Astoundingly, a prominent scientific study and a best-selling diet book were credited with nothing short of a revolution in American eating. Whereas U.S. citizens bought less than 4 pounds of oats each in 1987, the average would be 7 pounds in 1989.18 While the craze profoundly impacted national eating habits, the ephemeral nature that helped it grip the country so universally was also its downfall. Americans found it easy to abandon the extra roughage when a Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) study questioned bran's health effects in January 1990.

To understand the oat bran craze in its historical context, one must understand that no mere diet book or journal article—or even a series of these—caused millions of Americans to double their consumption of oat bran. As historian Harvey Levenstein notes, “to be accepted, new ideas about food must also fit in with people's social and economic aspirations.”19 Throughout the 20th century, society increasingly valued scientifically produced nutrition knowledge over more traditional dietary guidance. With hunger now relatively rare, they worried about chronic diseases of overabundance such as atherosclerosis and cancer. At the same time, adoption of broader societal value placed on affluence, self-sufficiency and personal choice led many Reagan-era Americans to believe they could make prophylactic decisions for their health through diet and fitness.

In many ways, oatmeal is the traditional food made modern. The lowly oat was particularly amenable to analysis under emerging scientific and medical paradigms. Its virtues are well represented in reductionist, statistical, biomedical research: oats contain a specific, unique fiber measurably improved an easily administered blood test. Oats were also uncontroversial. Their nutrient values were esteemed in those dietary paradigms that contemporary nutrition science codified: low-fat, all-natural, plant-based, high in protein and fiber. Oats were nutritionists’“health food” long before FDA regulators certified it so.

Brantastic voyage: oats through dietetic history

Johnson: Oats [are] a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.

Elibank: Yes, and where else will you see such horses and such men?

- Boswell, Life of Johnson (1791)20

The history of oats, and that of the Quaker corporation, is entwined with historical transitions in nutrition knowledge. Oats were traditionally regarded to have many of the health-promoting qualities that scientists certified in the late 1980s. The attribution of health properties to food certainly predates the oat bran craze, and even modern medicine. “It is probably not possible,” notes historian J. Worth Estes, “to differentiate foods from drugs with mutually exclusive definitions. The ambiguity, troublesome as it may be in some contexts, has deep historical roots.”21 An understanding of the current controversies benefits from a long-durée perspective on beliefs about health properties of food.

For centuries, oatmeal's value was established in traditional dietetic practice and the even-more-resilient common sense that some term “the wisdom of mom.”22 For nearly 2 millennia, the guiding nutritional wisdom of the learned Western world was embodied in dietetics. This system of knowledge originated in the writings of classical physicians Hippocrates (c. 460 to 370 BC) and Galen of Pergamon (c. 129 to 217 AD). Their tremendously persistent ancient paradigm urged the management of “humours,” bodily fluids that corresponded to the elements comprising the Aristotelian universe and that therefore had to be kept in balance for health.23 Foods were assigned elemental affiliations based on sensory qualities and played a key part in this balance.

Such valuations even withstood the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, when other Aristotelian paradigms were challenged and supplanted by experimental theories. One can imagine Copernicus, sitting down to breakfast and attempting to remedy his head cold with hot gruel before returning to his work of displacing the Earth from the center of the universe. Because diet was not reducible to observable components, Copernicus not train his telescope on nutrition, nor would scientists for several centuries.

The 19th century, however, marked the end of the dietetic tradition in the professional discourse. Noted German biochemist Justus von Liebig (1803 to 1873) announced that he had broken aliment down to its ultimate constituents: protein, carbohydrate, and fat. These same compounds made up the human body; we were literally what we ate. “The production of the constituents of blood cannot appear more surprising,” he believed, “than the occurrence of the fat of beef and mutton in cocoa beans, of human fat in olive-oil, of the principal ingredient of butter in palm-oil, and of horse fat and train-oil in certain oily seeds.”24 Food no longer needed to be thought of as a mystery, Liebig argued. It was observable, reducible, and understandable with science.25

Wilbur Atwater (1844 to 1907), an American, improved upon Liebig's findings by creating a “calorimeter” in his laboratory at Wesleyan Univ. This machine was able to quantify the energy produced by the combustion of food (a rough allegory for human digestion). Popular magazines carried Atwater's articles extolling the virtues of a rational, scientific diet for health and economy. Because “the distinction between cheap food and expensive food disintegrated under chemical analysis,” oats were particularly prized in Atwater's system. A sound nutritional source that provided quality protein and carbohydrates for energy, oats sold at prices far lower than refined wheat flour.26

Atwater here embodied a paradigm shift that historian Harvey Levenstein has referred to as the “New Nutrition.”27 Atwater believed he had utilized science to identify those foods most beneficial to growth and health, based on adequate calories, fat, carbohydrate, and protein. Atwater and his associates sought to introduce scientific efficiency to the rhythms of work and family life. “These chemists,” Levenstein reports, “recommended that people select their food foods on the basis of their chemical composition, rather than taste, appearance, or other considerations. In other words, they were telling people to eat “what was good for them’ rather than ‘what they liked.’”28 New Nutritionists aimed to supercede tradition with experimental fact.

If oatmeal was a favored food in the Atwater system, its stock rose higher in the 1920s and 1930s with the discovery of various “vitamins,” isolated organic compounds essential to life. Vitamin-based “Newer Nutrition” (to again use Levenstein's terminology) reached a high-modernist apex in the Second World War and its aftermath. As a result of strict rationing of foodstuffs needed at the front, an emphasis was placed on maximizing nutrition with limited resources.29 By far the most important dietary legacy of the war, however, was the federal government's first attempt to prescribe a national nutritional regimen. The Dept. of Agriculture's first dietary guidelines were released in 1943 at the behest of president Franklin Roosevelt. The “Basic Four,” in place until 1979, stressed whole grains, and offered oatmeal for breakfast as a perfect way to start the day.30,31

The abundance of the postwar period greatly impacted Americans’ views on food; the great increase in availability also led to an increase in consumption of rich foods such as red meat, with the American meal of steak and potatoes newly available to a range of consumers. Yet, a growing medical consensus was forming that blamed dietary fat for the increase in American heart disease cases. The nation closely followed the results in the media throughout the 1960s and 1970s. “The Fat of the Land,” as one article in Time was titled, had gone from a celebratory idiom to an object of deep anxiety.32

The growing consensus in the medical community eventually spurred Senator George McGovern (D-SD), chair of the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, to call for a reevaluation of the government food guidelines when it released Dietary Goals for the United States, which advocated that Americans reduce their fat and cholesterol intakes and increase consumption of complex carbohydrates and fiber.33 Foods low in fat were now favored as the new “health” foods. Oats and other starches, as the basis of responsible low-fat meals, received the biggest boost of all.34

The McGovern report contributed to an attitude that Harvey Levenstein has termed the “Negative Nutrition,” in contrast to the more positive “Newer Nutrition” dominant in the first half of the 20th century.35 Negative Nutrition is focused on the role of overnutrition and certain “bad” foods in the etiology of chronic disease, particularly of cardiac conditions.36 This new paradigm struck a chord with Americans’ new values and insecurities. In the words of Ronald Reagan's 1984 presidential campaign, the 1980s were “Morning in America”—a new era with worries and values distinct from earlier decades. Economic growth empowered personal choice, and the end of the Cold war allowed Americans to focus their anxieties domestically, even internally, for the first time in years. Levenstein finds it “difficult to think of a society in which [diet obsession] was more pronounced than the United States of the 1980s.”37 America's enhanced economic and geopolitical position meant its citizens’ diminished health could now command widespread attention—and profit potential.

Dietetics began as qualitative judgments, ascribing relationships between certain foods and states of disease. Throughout 3 millennia, these relationships were preserved in professional medical discourse as well as popular tradition. However, with the ascendancy of experimental science in the 19th century, professional quantitative judgment took priority. Foods would be reduced to their constituent parts for study, with nutrition's role in the etiology of disease left to demonstrable causation (as in vitamin deficiencies). The growth of nutritional epidemiology and intense public interest around the discipline led to a reintroduction of qualitative information, linking food to a variety of illnesses humans suffered. No matter the system, valuations of oats as a healthful, hearty food remained remarkably stable, though expressed in new terms.

The oatmeal epic: a brief history of Quaker Oats

“Oats have arrived![ …] A race of capable millers and inventors appear![ …] There are vast resources! Startling New Methods! It is the dawn of Big Business in the world's strongest nation! And the Quaker Mill at Ravenna, by reason of a priceless birthright, has a star role in The Oatmeal Epic.”

- Richard Ellsworth Day, Breakfast Table Autocrat (1946)38

The Quaker Oats Company that encountered the oat bran boom of the late 1980s had roots stretching back to the mid-19th century. As the first major national cereal corporation, Quaker pioneered its business in the United States. Quaker was “modern from its birth, free to pioneer and innovate,” in the words of Arthur Marquette's 1967 corporate history. The company “changed the breakfast habits of the nation, revolutionized food marketing, created national brand food advertising, and, in passing, demonstrated to industry that diversification of [ …] product lines is the life of trade.”39 In the process of making breakfast cereals familiar and appealing to Americans, Quaker was at the vanguard of mass production, branding, and advertising.

As one might expect from any century-old organization, Quaker's history is full of notable events, from the world's first cereal-box prizes40 to the creation of the iconic Cap’n Crunch.41 However, it is Quaker's methods of creating a powerful brand that are of most import to this discussion of oat science and oat sales in the late 20th century. For over 125 y, the company has both responded to and shaped consumer mores, blending the rustic traditional and the modern scientific identities of oats in order to sell more canisters of its namesake product. It is these tactics that are here traced throughout Quaker's corporate history to show the persistent success this approach has brought, and its different manifestations in separate social and scientific circumstances.

The group that eventually formed Quaker Oats began as a number of independent mills throughout the Midwest, owned and operated by millers of German and Scottish origin. The oldest mill was that of Ferdinand Schumacher (1822 to 1908), a German immigrant whose Jumbo mill in Akron, Ohio was the nation's largest since its founding in 1850.42 However, in 1881, Schumacher's rivals formed a trust to combat his market dominance. Harry Parsons Crowell (1855 to 1943), an ambitious 26-y old who in 1881 had purchased a bankrupt mill in Ravenna, Ohio, led the group. Crowell became the outright leader when Schumacher, humbled by a devastating mill fire in 1886, joined the Quaker group.43

Whereas Schumacher had succeeded by selling large volumes of commodity oats, Crowell believed in the future food would be sold by differentiating itself with intelligent marketing. Expanding the market for Quaker's product beyond traditional oatmeal-eating Scots, Irish, and Germans would require an unprecedented appeal directly to the consumer, making the case for oats as a better way to eat breakfast. Crowell recognized that the group's oats needed to be separated from the commodity crops that grocers scooped out of bulk barrels. Rock-bottom margins and brutal price competition meant that grain producers lived and died with the next crop. Crowell believed that a product with a stable identity of quality and purity could escape this cycle of “commodity hell.”44

The “Quaker” name, chosen to convey the brand's “frugality, thrift, neatness, orderliness and—above all—its integrity” was Crowell's chief asset in the merging of the various mills.45 Certainly, the mark was innovative; when it was registered in 1877, no other national company had marketed a breakfast cereal. Juliann Sivulka remembers Quaker as “marketing's first success with brand-name, packaged goods” of any kind.46 She credits the company's eminence to 2 factors that turned oats from agricultural commodity to powerful brand. First, Crowell focused on turning oats from a bulk good into a packaged one, removing worries about contamination and creating “a more desirable product by packaging them in a cardboard box printed with the picture of the Quaker man and a recipe.”47

Second, and most crucial, was the way this novel packaged food product was promoted. Crowell left no avenue unexplored in his quest to sell more oats:

“the pioneering cereal carried its message of health through a variety of forms: newspapers, magazines, streetcar signs, billboards, booklets, samples, cooking demonstrations, store displays, premiums inside the carton, calendars, cookbooks, and picture cards. Within a few years, the Quaker Oats trademark character became familiar nationally.48

Quaker thus became emblematic of the rise of branded products: manufacturers were discovering for the first time to “add value.” This concept, common parlance in the food industry, refers to the provision of advantages such as better taste, convenient preparation, attractive packaging and branding, and (most recently) better nutrition through processing of raw food ingredients, in order to produce a product consumers appreciate and will pay a premium for. Crowell's attempts to add value through good branding led to Quaker being perhaps “the most promoted product ever” at the turn of the 20th century.49

In the view of many historians of marketing, “Henry Crowell was one of the strongest forces in the creation of modern advertising.”50 His long career of high profile, innovative campaigns (from the 1880s to the 1940s) had broad influence on both industry norms and consumer eating habits. Food historian Harvey Levenstein points to “the emergence of large corporate entities profiting from mass markets for their mass produced foods” in the “mounting of large campaigns designed to change food habits through persuasion.”51 Quaker may have been hawking oatmeal, but it sold Americans attitudes toward food. Eating became an important issue of consumer choice.

These precepts served Quaker well throughout the 20th century. The company sought to compete in the increasingly competitive cereal market by emphasizing innovation and research in both marketing and nutrition science. Its product advertisements never failed to stress oats’ health image, and a willingness to spend for maximum impact meant that these health messages reached audiences impactfully. The nation's first color ad, for example, touted Quaker on the back cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1899:

A Healthy Reflection: How foolish to keep on eating meat to the exclusion of Quaker Oats when dietary experts agree that Quaker Oats is more nourishing and wholesome. It certainly is more agreeable and appetizing; then, too, it is more economical. Why then?52

Such marketing leveraged Quaker's longstanding involvement in academic nutrition research. In 1923, Quaker participated in one of the very first university technology transfer contracts when it licensed a scientific process to artificially enrich food, negotiating $60000 in annual royalties with biochemist Harry Steenbock and the Univ. of Wisconsin in order to advertise oats’ vitamin D content.53 By 1946 research showed that oats “had just about everything – Vitamin B1, [ …] available iron, phosphorus, and protein for body building! Also, Riboflavin and Calcium! If the Quaker scientists continue to find new blandishments, who can foretell what will be reported by 1950?”54

Many believe that with such a strong precedent to follow, competitors such as Kellogg (founded 1906) and General Mills (1866) consciously modeled their marketing on Quaker's innovations.55 These 2 competitors pushed Quaker to 3rd place by the mid-20th century by more quickly and intelligently diversifying product lines and businesses. While Quaker foundered with bizarre investments in dog food, industrial chemicals, and Fisher-Price toys, its competitors dominated the breakfast market with sugary ready-to-eat cereals and Pop-Tarts.56 By the late 1980s, the Quaker Oats brand was over 100 y old, overextended in poor product lines and unprofitable side businesses. Worse, it seemed to have run out of interesting things to say. “It seemed that Quaker could not attract the attention of American consumers,” said members of the company's oatmeal group; the company as a whole was searching for identity.57 The bran craze, however, once again made consumers oat-conscious.

The muffin and the mania:58bran breaks through

“Ay, sir, they be ready: the oats have eaten the horses.”

- William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew (1594)59

Historically, the FDA had outlawed language on product labels linking foods to specific health conditions since 1906, when the Pure Food and Drug Act prohibited “false or misleading” claims under penalty of seizure and prosecution.60 As the FDA has throughout its history been a small, under-funded agency, historian George Kurian believes “the basis of the law rested on the regulation of product labeling rather than pre-market approval,” so as not to overwhelm the agency.61 Monitoring claims only after they reached the market was not ideal, but enabled the FDA to correct blatant abuses.

The FDA was particularly focused on misleading food claims. Under the Federal FD&C of 1938, a food that claimed effectiveness against diseases was considered a drug under FDA rules, and would have to file a new drug application; they were also prohibited from reaching the market until the FDA gave its approval. Hilts explains the bureaucratic hurdles entailed: “the product [ …] would have to go through the same painstaking process as any drug would.”62 The time, expense, and high burden of proof involved acted as an effective deterrent.

In 1984, however, one of Quaker's fibrous competitors challenged the status quo. Kellogg's All-Bran, citing recent epidemiological research, advertised the purported ability of dietary fiber to fight cancer.63 All-Bran reaped enormous benefits: an “astonishing” 47% increase in market share within the first 6 mo of the campaign showed unequivocally that “health claims sold products.”64 Surprisingly, the FDA took no action on Kellogg's health claim.65

The claim's success perhaps owes more to savvy navigation of government bureaucratic structure than scientific rigor. Kellogg developed the claim with the NCI, the FDA's sister agency within the HHS. This intradepartmental end around left the FDA powerless. Although Dr. Sanford Miller, the FDA's head of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, considered the product claim “incorrect because there's no evidence that this kind of fiber can help,” the agency was unable to publicly contradict an NCI statement.

In the eyes of those higher up in the Reagan administration, “the FDA's job [was] to encourage this trend [ …] by cooperating with industry to make healthful products available,” as FDA head Dr. Frank Young explained.66 The agency announced a “cautious green light [ …] to use health claims in promotions” until new rules could be drafted.67 Suddenly, minor changes to a product label became a powerful new marketing tactic. Within 5 y of the All-Bran campaign, an estimated that 40% of all new food products advertised their health appeal.68“What has All-Bran wrought?” wondered Consumer Reports, even as the venerable magazine revamped its coverage to compare cereals’ fiber content.69

Claim labels allowed average consumers to consider food in a quantitative, reductionist framework. Dietary information was disseminated along a clear specialist hierarchy. Peer-reviewed scientific media served to convert the popular media, who then translated expert scientific findings into more easily digestible sound bites. Along the way, valuable quantitative context detailing everything from statistical power to experimental design was completely excised.70 Only then, it was believed, could the lay public understand these recommendations, and spend their money accordingly.

Whether health claims sold consumers on sound nutritional practice was less than clear. The FDA found in 1987 (and again in 1997) that health claims’ chief benefit was rather dubious: a quick shopping heuristic that shoppers could use to decide upon a product without consulting the back of the label for quantitative nutrition information.71,72 Economists at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) presented a more positive interpretation, focused on the measurable effects of the advertisements: consumption changes, which were positively influenced in favor of high-fiber options.73,74 Both had no choice but to admit that the conflicting data caused ambivalence and confusion.

The rapid increase in health claims as a result of the All-Bran fiasco created a precedent for oat bran in 1988. A contemporary correspondent for Fortune magazine recounted the escalation to mania:

What started the craze was a California medical writer, Robert E. Kowalski, whose book The 8-Week Cholesterol Cure was published in 1987. The cure's magic bullet: oat bran. The book climbed onto the best seller list and sits there still. Then, the following spring, JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, carried a report on the virtues of reducing cholesterol through diet, including oat bran. In a flash grocers across the land heard the nonstop patter of feet in the cereal aisle.75

Fortune credited the influence of peer-certified scientific testimony, combined with the accessibility of a popular source, in swaying public opinion.

Oat bran was launched into the public consciousness with Robert Kowalski's 8-Wk Cholesterol Cure, a diet plan that promised to help the reader gain control not of only their weight, but also their heart disease risk. Kowalski claimed to have lowered his cholesterol by 115 points in 2 mo by combining a low-fat diet with regular exercise and riboflavin, a B vitamin. Yet, the centerpiece element of Kowalski's program was oat bran, part of the cereal in “that familiar cylindrical container with the smiling Quaker face that today seems so wholesome.”76 The skeptical reader might wonder how this worked. Kowalski explained:

Just what can be expected by making oat bran a part of the daily diet[?] Oat bran significantly lowers both total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol while not at all lowering the protective HDL levels. As a side effect, oat bran helps maintain a normal glucose level in the blood of diabetic patients. [However,] no one knows for certain how oat bran works.”77

In addition, Kowalski maintained that the fiber in oat bran would keep dieters from being hungry and provide them with essential vitamins and minerals. The familiar Quaker breakfast staple was imbued with so many mysterious health effects that if oat bran was not the panacea consumers took it to be, the confusion was understandable.

Kowalski, though not a medical doctor or researcher, invoked 2 forms of expertise that have proved enormously effective with the lay public, despite falling short of scientific satisfaction. First, the author was a journalist with graduate-level training in physiology who had spent years reporting scientific discoveries for national newspapers.78 In addition, Kowalski had worked in the pharmaceutical, medical, and food industries (in effect, every industry that would be interested in his health phenomenon). Kowalski's professional and academic experience combined technical knowledge and the savvy to bring bran to the masses.

Second, however, and likely just as important to selling books and bran as any professional affiliation, was the fact that Kowalski was himself a 2-time heart attack survivor. Repeatedly, he communicated to readers that he understood their concerns. Like any good parent, Kowalski knew he “had so much to live for! I adored my very young children [ …] Never before had I wanted so badly to live.”79 The combination of an “everyman” story with Kowalski's claims to understand scientific truth made for exceptionally powerful rhetoric. The 8-Wk Cholesterol Cure was a number-one New York Times bestseller, and remained on the list for an unprecedented 115 wk.80 Over 2 million copies were sold; 8% of the U.S. population believed Robert Kowalski enough to buy his book. The fad was underway.

Kowalski's personal experiences and the testimonies his doctors gave sold a great many diet books, and the existing scientific literature Kowalski could cite was voluminous. Sociologist and food policy expert Marion Nestle reports that “eleven studies [ …] by 1988 had demonstrated reductions in blood cholesterol ranging from 3% to 26% as a result of eating from 1 to 5 ounces of oatmeal or oat bran daily.”81 While these studies provided a wealth of background reading, oat bran became a phenomenon with the well-timed publication of a review in the high-profile JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The review, titled “Cutting into Cholesterol: Cost-Effective Alternatives for Treating Hypercholesterolemia,” appeared in JAMA on April 15, 1988, several months after Kowalski's book entered the bestseller lists.82 The authors, Dr. Bruce Kinosian and John Eisenberg, had medical credentials (both from the Univ. of Pennsylvania) as well as business experience (Eisenberg also held a Wharton MBA). Relying on previous studies’ empirical findings, the study compared the effectiveness of oat bran to that of 2 prescription medicines, cholestyramine resin and colestipol.83 While all 3 interventions worked well, oat bran was far cheaper. The authors estimated that a significant reduction in cholesterol (85 mg/dL) would cost about $20000 per person with oat bran; prescription drugs would cost between 7 and 10 times more. While individual consumers could certainly appreciate these savings, Kinosian and Eisenberg believed that the societal cost reduction—in health and more traditional monetary assets—would be enormous. Equally large were the study's effects on bran consumption: “Even though there was no new evidence in the article about the usefulness of oat bran in lowering cholesterol, by the time the information had made its way into the press, oat bran had become the magic bullet” consumers were looking for.84

Although bran was far cheaper than prescription drugs, this certainly did not mean that it was an unprofitable business. Products bearing oat health claims on their labels were selling like (fibrous, whole-grain) hotcakes. Journalist Penny Ward Moser noted that the craze had the feeling of a riotous collective binge:

When I went to the store myself, I was astounded: There they all were, yuppies in Izod shirts or Fila joggers, reading cereal boxes as if they were bodice rippers. The only oatmeal left was apple-cinnamon in a green box (my husband had thought it was lime because he didn't have his glasses). Like any good consumer in a frenzy, I bought it.

Moser believed oats were “traditionally good as animal feed or a breakfast that tasted like wallpaper paste,” but as “a way to battle killer cholesterol” they had

rapidly regained their place in the American diet and Americans’ conscious.85

The numbers supported Moser's experience. A 900% increase in oat demand in 1989 drew both giants like Quaker and General Mills but also upstarts like Health Valley, which quickly became one of the nation's largest health-food corporations as a result.86,87 In the fiscal year 1988 to 1989, sales of oats and bran grew 35.6% to $2.26 billion, representing an astounding 31.4% of total cereal sales and outpacing growth in the industry as a whole by more than 20 percentage points.88“If you look at the market for hot cereal, which is primarily an oat-based product, dollar sales were up 25% last year after years of stagnating,” noted one industry expert in 1989. “People have really started to eat oat bran like horses. If this keeps up, there won't be enough left for the horses and we might have to start feeding them doughnuts and cake.”89

Quaker Oats is the brand name nearly synonymous with oats in America, and has been since it became the first registered trademark for a cereal in 1877.90 One might wonder, however, why it is an exemplar of changing American notions of diet and health in the late 20 century. Even its primacy in the oat bran craze requires explanation: one company does not a mania make. What made the bran fad so astounding was its gold rush feeling: it seemed every food company in existence (and many that had not existed before) was churning out a bran-filled offering. The craze mattered most, however, to Quaker, the company that owed its name and its continued market competitiveness to Avena sativa.

Quaker's oat bran was primarily (and naturally) found in its traditional offering, hot cereal. Its efforts to bring new and novel bran-added products to the market were somewhat behind other food companies. These rivals sprinkled bran on potato chips, beer, brownies, and other counterintuitive products. Many consumer groups were incensed at the liberal use of bran: “when doctors talk about lowering your cholesterol, I don't believe they’re talking about doughnuts with a smidgen of oat bran in it,” protested Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).91 It hardly seemed to matter, however: consumers were buying oat bran products, and it seemed everyone was clamoring to answer the demand. In 1988, more than 200 brand new oat bran products jostled for shelf space.92

The fact that it cost up to $30 million to introduce a food product in 1989 (and that 90% of those new products failed to gain traction and become permanent products) gives an indication of the risk oat bran makers were willing to endure for enormous profit potential.93“Food marketers—acting without government guidance or regulation—are facing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for profit, Advertising Age reported.94 Enormous corporate accounts would be thrown at those advertisers savvy enough to capitalize on health. Quaker spent $357 million on advertising in 1990, and General Mills $471 million.95 Quaker's Luther McKinney, then Quaker's vice president of law and corporate affairs, believed that advertisers and industry needed to catch up to the other players in health:

This isn't that difficult to solve. We’ve advanced a lot in dietary options and the medical profession's perception of the relationship between diet and health. Now we need to resolve the relatively simple matter of communicating those ideas.96

When these advertisements were memorable and effective, as in the case of Quaker's long running “Do the Right Thing” campaign with mustachioed pitchman Wilford Brimley, profits beckoned.

The sheer size of the shift in consumer demand managed to catch major oat producers unprepared. The chaos was such that Americans actually purchased all of the oat bran Quaker produced for domestic consumption. “We’re out of capacity, people are screaming, everyone starts chasing this thing because there's this roaring demand going,” remembered Polly Kawalek, the vice president in charge of Quaker's hot cereal division.97 Quaker brought in bran from overseas, and ran its plants around the clock.98

The craze was noticeably impacting the priorities of all of agriculture. Mary Shelman, director of the Harvard Business School agribusiness program, worked in the rice industry in the late 1980s and recalls a priority effort made by rice producers to nutritionally analyze their bran for health benefits.99 The potential to be “the next oat bran” was alluring—if consumers were willing to pay top dollar for an agricultural byproduct normally fed to cattle, why would producers protest? Certainly humans paid a bit more for their bran than the livestock had.

The sheer number of companies rushing to fill the oat bran demand created a panoply of options for consumers. However, this was not always advantageous. Without the rigid consumer protection that had been previously provided by the FDA, consumers were left to guess that products fairly represented their nutritional content. Even if one accepted the evidence underlying that oat bran craze, how could it be known that any given purchase was a quality source of the coveted ingredient?100 Confusion over the science was only exacerbated by a lack of FDA regulation on health claims.

Consumers’ frustrations were magnified for Quaker, which considered itself unfairly discriminated against by the FDA's lack of involvement. The company had historically prided itself on its status as a nutrition leader, extensively financing proprietary and academic research. However, the oat bran mania challenged this model. It allowed unscrupulous corporations to benefit from Quaker's own work, even as they damaged the industry's collective reputation. Quaker's vice president for legal affairs, Luther McKinney, vented in the New York Times:

Quaker Oats had scientists on its staff, carried out serious research, and adhered to rigorous scientific standards. The company made use of its own work and that of science in general to make claims for its products. But most companies, [McKinney] said, had little interest in science. ‘They just sprinkle a little oat bran on their product and ride this train without any backing for their claims.’101

Clearly, these abuses could not stand in the future; the FDA needed to be empowered for the protection of America's citizens and its businesses.

Suing wild oats: a bran backlash

“The two made one crop of wild oats, for which he was heartily sorry, and he could not see that those oats are of a darker stock which are rooted in another's dishonour.”

- E.M. Forster, Howards End (1910)102

The bran fad's demise was due in large part to the publication of yet another scientific study in a prestigious journal. On January 18, 1990, the New England Journal of Medicine a randomized clinical trial that called bran's cholesterol-lowering effects into question.103 The press was abuzz: “has the oat bran bubble burst?” asked the CSPI's Nutrition Action Healthletter.104 The answer soon became clear; by January 22 even the marketers’ weekly Advertising Age believed the craze was “on the wane” as consumers lost faith in product claims.105

The headlines around the fad's end did not offer a new scientific consensus that the public could comprehend. Indeed, the New York Times observed that “[1989] has been a record year for sitting in front of a television screen, a bag of oat bran potato chips in one hand, a bottle of oat bran beer in the other, watching late breaking reports on menacing foods.”106 No conclusion was safe; even though it doomed oat bran donuts, the Harvard study design was harshly criticized within the medical community.107“The authors have managed to confuse the American public further with a poorly designed and underpowered trial that draws erroneous conclusions,” wrote one dissenting JAMA reader.108 Conclusive data were hard to come by.

Bran producers were equally vexed; many had bet their businesses on the craze continuing. Given that Americans had consumed 7 pounds at the craze's height and only 4 the previous year, analysts had been far too bold when they “expect[ed] that number to go to ten by 1991,” as Fortune reported in 1989.109 Quaker lost over $20 million on oats alone in 1990, as most of its new bran products had hit the market in December 1989, just in time for the fateful JAMA article. With 2 y of work and planning wasted, “we were disgraced. Everyone else left,” remembered Quaker veteran Polly Kawalek.110

Many critics have targeted the meteoric rise and precipitous fall of oat bran as an exemplar of the harmful effects of decontextualized scientific media coverage. Epidemiologists argue that the media errs in assuming that any study's conclusions are, indeed, conclusive. When “each little jigsaw piece is picked up by the media and made into a message,” as one doctor complained to New Scientist in 2006, the public gets “the impression that nutritional advice changes every day of the week.”111 The difficulty and uncertainty of thorough, large-scale nutrition studies mean that almost any finding is only a partial answer in an overall nutritional understanding.

Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director at food industry watchdog CSPI, maintained that most people were not adequately interested or qualified to interpret original scientific information. “You can't expect Joe Six-Pack to read six reports on diet and cholesterol,” she believed, expressing exasperation with news reports that “typically portray food scientists as befuddled figures in white coats who are constantly scratching their heads and reversing themselves.”112 If the media could not report science accurately the average consumer lacked both the interest and the education to check facts, the situation seemed bleak.113

It seemed that academic nutrition science was not attuned to the public's expectations. Jonathan Pizer, an man-on-the-street interviewee from Chicago's north side, fretted to the New York Times: “[Now] they tell us oat bran really doesn't reduce cholesterol. [ …] What are we supposed to do?”114 A nationwide Gallup poll conducted in 1989 confirmed that Mr. Pizer's frustrations were by no means isolated. An overwhelming majority (82%) of consumers wished to see more products advertised as having health benefits, and 47% had purchased such foods in the previous 30 d. At the same time, however, nearly half stated that they did not believe that such products would reduce cholesterol.115 Thus, even though these consumers may have listed Quaker's oatmeal among the healthiest foods they purchased (alongside apples and yogurt), they remained skeptical of any health message. Public trust was severely damaged.

While the federal government continued to debate the best regulatory response, state-level governments invoked the constitutional right to regulate commerce within their jurisdictions. The Natl. Assn. of Attorneys General coordinated an all-out assault of litigation on offending cereal producers. Kellogg faced lawsuits in Iowa and New York for claiming that its “Rice Krispies” were an excellent B-vitamin source. General Mills’“Benefit” cereal, which included psyllium fiber (the active ingredient of the Metamucil range of fiber supplements) and claimed anticholesterol powers, was challenged and pulled from the market in 1989.116

By far the most bitter, protracted legal battle was Texas attorney general Jim “Mad Dog” Mattox's suit against Quaker. Mattox sought a temporary restraining order against the company, claiming that “[the] oat bran craze in this country was primarily started by Quaker in order to sell its products,” and that “consumers have been duped.”117 Quaker strenuously objected, and countersued. “With the states jumping in, [food labeling] has become like playing baseball with fifty referees: It's hard to play competitively and on a level playing field,” said one of Quaker's lawyers. “In fact, it's hard to play at all.”118 Although federal regulations would be a “mixed blessing,” Quaker argued that a unified national policy would be a significant improvement over uneven state-by-state standards.119

Mattox v. Quaker Oats was particularly poignant because those who did not believe the studies showing bran's promise also invoked science. Studies showing oat bran's effectiveness would be rebutted with contradicting research, critiques of experimental design and size, or allegations that corporate sponsorship had adulterated findings. Historian Rima Apple has observed a similar phenomenon in the related debate over vitamin supplementation.

Lack of evidence did not undermine faith in a scientific solution to the vitamin controversy. Both supporters and opponents considered science to be the arbiter of the question. [ …] did not provide clear, unambiguous results. Consequently both sides used the very lack of scientific consensus to defend their own stands and to accuse their opponents of scientific ignorance. Consumers themselves used the uncertainty of orthodox science to defend their right to choose.120

Oat bran, like so many scientific skirmishes, became a battle over beliefs, with empirical evidence used as a rhetorical weapon.

Whereas vitamins have been more or less a niche product for the 90 y since their discovery, the oat bran fad marked the first time in national memory that a large percentage of consumers simultaneously adopted a dietary change.121 Though bran sales eventually stopped crackling, calls for tougher standards did not. Activists like Bonnie Liebman of CSPI grew bolder in their calls for action: “Maybe [lawsuits will] teach companies like Quaker Oats not to plaster exaggerated claims about heart disease on their labels before the science is more certain.”122

The New York Times took a more positive viewpoint as Mattox v. Quaker Oats came to an end in February 1990 (in anticipation of federal labeling law changes later that year). Editorials called on the FDA to rewrite its regulations for the good of both customers and producers when the Congressional bill was finalized.

The delay [to reinstate rules] is doubly unfortunate. Advertising has great power to mislead [… but] can also convey valuable nutrition information, which consumers increasingly seek. [ …] The confusion over food claims hurts manufacturers, too. Investments promoting foods with oat bran may have suffered now that new studies dispute oat bran's value in reducing cholesterol. It's a proper role of government to determine where consensus exists and then let food makers inform the public.123

The chaos that the craze became left both the public and industry awakened to new possibilities in nutrition, yet frustrated at the abuses of a highly deregulated market.

Conclusion

The oat bran craze speaks powerfully to the public's views on health, to food producers’ calculations of profitable promotions, and to government's struggles to regulate this intersection of science and business. Michael Pollan, perhaps the most prominent critic of the phenomenon, regards oat bran as an archetype.

The Year of Eating Oat Bran—also known as 1988—served as a kind of coming-out party for the food scientists, who succeeded in getting the material into nearly every processed food sold in America. Oat bran's moment on the dietary stage didn't last long, but the pattern had been established, and every few years since then a new oat bran has taken its turn under the marketing lights.124

Oat bran was not the first indication that consumers cared about health. It was, however, the first case of a sudden change in food habits that captured national attention and powerfully affected corporate bottom lines. With oat bran, “science was removed from the laboratory and placed squarely in the center of American culture and commerce.”125 The possibilities of large-scale dietary change were readily apparent to industry.

Bruce and Crawford believe that “during the 1980s, the Reagan administration's laissez-faire economic and social policies allowed corporate America to gorge itself at a breakfast of the vanities.”126 In reality, negative consequences were apparent to all, though preferred responses varied. Total deregulation had been a failure, and new laws were needed. “Congress is considering legislation to hurry the F.D.A. [sic] along,” reported the Times. “The oat bran imbroglio [ …] attest[s] to the liveliness of the experiment the agency started with All-Bran – and the urgency of completing it.”127 Reinvigorated legislation would not be easy to create or to enforce. Oat bran, however, convinced the government that it was the best way to protect both consumers and business.

Gruel Intentions: The NLEA and Quaker's Health Claim, 1990 to 1997

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Wild Oats: The Oat Bran Craze 1988 to 1990
  5. Gruel Intentions: The NLEA and Quaker's Health Claim, 1990 to 1997
  6. Cash Crop: Leveraging Scientific Evidence 1997 to 2010
  7. Conclusion
  8. Abbreviations 
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Written Sources
  12. Secondary Sources
  13. Works Consulted Primary Sources
  14. Secondary Sources
  15. Appendix

“Spare your breath to cool your porridge.”

- Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605)128

The nation could not choke down bran beer forever. By early 1990, with new scientific studies calling bran's effect on cholesterol into question, the craze came crashing down like a poorly constructed grocery store display. Many consumers felt confused by scientific authority, abandoned by regulators, and cheated by food manufacturers. Corporations, too, felt that their rights to fair competition were ignored by totally unregulated advertising and labeling. The bran controversy demonstrated a need for clear, enforceable law to substantiate health claims.

“Food is becoming the pharmacy of the 1990's,” a food industry consultant told the New York Times in 1989. “People don't take vitamins, they eat different foods.”129 The public decided that products were successful by opening their wallets, and those foods with health messages—valid or not—were selling. The power of marketing, if properly channeled and controlled, offered great potential to educate the public. Unregulated claims, by contrast, hurt as often as they helped. The FDA's inability to control the bran craze led directly to an act of Congress, the NLEA of 1990.

One of the principal supporters for stronger legislation was Quaker Oats. Accordingly, Quaker was the first to successfully navigate the health-claim process created by the NLEA and thus gained the market-viable certification of FDA approval, a unique and significant advantage for oatmeal. Quaker's experience transformed the way corporations viewed the possibilities of nutrition information; rather than a neutral or negative experience, working with the FDA could provide unprecedented opportunities.

Regulating regularity: the NLEA of 1990

“To the consuming fire we consign thee—BRAN. Ten thousand dieticians have wept over thee in vain.” - USDA Dietician Margaret Sawyer (1927)130

The passage of the NLEA of 1990 is viewed as frequently viewed as a major reallocation of power in favor of the FDA. The reality of the legislation's passage, however, reveals that it is more accurately seen as a carefully considered compromise. The complexity of food industry regulation was readily apparent in the passionate debates popularly and on the floor of Congress. Food policy expert Marion Nestle believes that “separate lines of regulatory proposals for food labeling [and] health claims on food labels [ …] became thoroughly entangled with each other.”131 The ever-present difficulty of philosophically distinguishing food from drug reached new levels in lawmaking.

The NLEA became law on November 8, 1990, ending a 6-y regulatory moratorium. Foods that made health claims would once again need to be preregistered with the FDA. However, they would not be held to the high standard of proof that had once applied under the Federal FD&C of 1938.132 The NLEA, therefore, constituted an effort to strike a balance between these all-or-nothing approaches, to allow viable claims for both commercial and consumer benefit.

The FDA had suspended its regulation of claims with All-Bran in 1984 as “an experiment,” but critics like the New York Times were highly ambivalent about the agency's success. “Food health claims have since proliferated, but the agency's experiment remains unfinished,” the editors stated, because “the FDA has delayed writing urgently needed rules to clarify what claims may be made and what degree of scientific consensus should support them.”133 Consumer groups like the CSPI agreed, insisting “good, detailed labeling could reduce disease.”134 Well-defined rules would be responsible health policy.

Many within the food industry also supported the proposed legislation, albeit for different reasons. Research-based firms sought to differentiate their products from those with unreasonable claims, to protect consumers and company profits. Quaker in particular was strident in its call for reforms: the company found itself disadvantaged against less-scrupulous companies that had no compunction in making questionable claims. In the New York Times, Quaker representative Luther McKinney called cereal “a bad business” and said Quaker would “welcome some responsible regulation.”135 Corporations and trade groups filed petitions with the FDA to request a formal inquiry into the matter.136 With representatives of both sides of the market aligning for change, it was clear that the government would have to reevaluate its policies.

Regulators were fed up as well. Dr. Louis Sullivan, director of the HHS, called for “sweeping changes”; he believed “the grocery store has become a Tower of Babel, and consumers need to be linguists, scientists, and mind readers to understand the many labels they see. Vital information is missing, and frankly some misleading health claims are being made.”137 Incoming FDA commissioner David Kessler inherited the controversy as it was already well underway but lent vocal support. Kessler was blunt in a speech at a food industry convention: his agency “must stand for, it must embody, strong and judicious enforcement [ …] Let me remind all of you neither to underestimate the rigor of this agency nor the strength of its resolve.”138

Resolve aside, however, the FDA struggled to reassert its authority, to harsh criticism from elected officials. Representative Ted Weiss (D-NY) called the moratorium “an unhealthy idea” and worried that “the public can be harmed and, at the very least, can be wasting their money on things that say, ‘Eat this product and prevent X disease.’”139 Finally, spurred to action by oat bran chaos, Congressional subcommittees stepped in to debate the components of a new label law in October of 1989.140 Henry Waxman (D-CA), a noted consumer advocate, sponsored the bill that would eventually become law. The influential liberal did not mince words: “In today's market, the industry has an incentive to make exaggerated and inaccurate health claims on foods. I hope the FDA will finally begin prohibiting health claims unless the agency first finds they have a sound scientific basis.”141 The pressure on the FDA was intense.

In particular, many in the media believed the FDA's plans for regulations (which would be drafted separately after the passing of the Federal statute) ran afoul of the Bush administration's deregulation sympathies. The mainstream media was deeply skeptical of the influence of appointed politicians, who they believed were biased by lobbyists and contributions, over the supposedly more neutral career bureaucrats and specialists at the FDA.142

Accusations of political interference were particularly aimed at the White House. Its Office of Management and Budget (OMB), “to which every agency would have to apply if it wanted to implement regulation,” was excoriated as a pro-business conservative cabal.143,144 Facing this criticism, in late 1992 Bush approved a modified version of the FDA's proposed regulations, with less stringent definitions for front label statements like “low fat.” The Bush administration's about face was something of a reversal from the Reagan administration's pro-industry stance. However, many in the food industry realized that “litigation and uncertainty for food companies and consumers” would be the only result of further delay, before rules had to be ratified once and for all.

With the White House moving behind a revised bill, a combination of brinksmanship and dealmaking sealed the bill's passage. The FDA's chief, David Kessler, threatened to resign if his organization was slighted.145 Meanwhile, the strongly pro-regulation Congressman Waxman softened his opposition to a controversial “federal pre-emption” clause. This clause, intended to prevent debacles like Mattox v. Quaker Oats following the oat bran fad, denied individual states the power to modify the NLEA regulations within their boundaries. The confidence that Federal rules would be the law of the land reassured large food producers that multiple packages would not have to be produced to meet regulations, preventing the NLEA from becoming prohibitively costly. With mutual assurances in place, the deal moved forward. Philip Hilts, a New York Times correspondent covering FDA at the time, later wrote that the NLEA compromise produced the “most important food regulation ever.”146,147

The FDA's final regulations focused on packages’ front and back panels. A standardized quantitative back panel label listed the nutrient content of the food inside, and attempted to fit the food into the daily diet with percentages of the recommended daily allowance (RDA). The label was an updated, universal version of the information that had since the 1970s been required on foods fortified with an added nutrient or that advertised utilizing nutritional facts (for example, calcium content). Now, no food would be exempt. Billions of labels would have to be redesigned, at an estimated cost of $2 billion to producers.148

The front of the label offered the most significant profit potential. Regulators at the FDA braced themselves in anticipation (ultimately correct) that “this provision would ultimately produce the most serious controversy.”149 Health claims offered the credence of the FDA's scientific imprimatur, combined with a specific linkage to a disease. Health claims occupied the middle ground between scientific information and ad copy, so the FDA intended to enforce stringent standards and expert panel review, so that only solid consensus would suffice.150 The FDA “had twice proposed regulations to govern these matters prior to enactment of the [NLEA],” former FDA chief counsel Peter Hutt recalled. The new regulation would be especially divisive because “it reflected some of the same criteria that had been proposed by FDA and strongly criticized by the food industry.”151

Congressional law and FDA proposals only represented one perspective; they would be significantly shaped by compromises with industry and consumers. The FDA was inundated with more than 47000 comments from corporations, scientists, and the public filed in the months leading up to its final rulings on January 6, 1993.152 Food labels were a matter of intense interest among both consumers and producers. Most seemed to agree that the prior regime had been highly dysfunctional. Consumer groups and public health officials, for their part, generally were pleased with the increased scope of FDA power. The food industry was more circumspect, reserving judgment to see how friendly enforcement would be.

By 1993, the FDA hoped it again had a system in place that would allow fair product evaluation. The agency had to cede its ambitions of totally restricting health claims in return for effective, though circumscribed, regulatory power. Food marketers were granted the possibility of official certification and credibility with consumers. In exchange, they were held to greater accountability, and saddled with the significant cost and thus inconvenience of label changes on all products. Consumers, for their part, received the boon of standardized and inspected information to protect against the gravest mistruths; how effectively these labels would be produced and implemented was unclear.

Consumer theory, a branch of microeconomics, attempts to relate individual choices to the iron rules of supply and demand. Economists working with the FDA and FTC examined the NLEA's potential impact using the “economics of information” developed by George Stigler, a Univ. of Chicago economist.153 Consumers prefer goods with better information, so in the mindset of the food industry, claims would “add value” because many would pay more for a certified nutritious product. When combined with Columbia economist Kelvin Lancaster's “product characteristics theory,” marketers and regulators “started looking at products such as foods [ …] not just as consumption commodities, but as a bundle of attributes” which consumers searched.154 Knowledge was (market) power.

Foods’ appearance and taste were “search” (readily apparent when making a choice) and “experience” (evaluated after purchase and use) attributes, respectively. Nutritional characteristics, while vitally important to many consumers, were categorized as “credence attributes,” those values that could not be easily observed or experienced but had to be taken on faith. The obvious problem lay in finding trustworthy information, and thus the FDA-approved label provided the solution.155 Labels took specialized and inaccessible knowledge, quantified it and related it to an individual's health needs. Credence goods would become search goods, and public health would benefit.

Labels exerted pressure upon both the food industry and the consumer to make better choices. The grocery shopper who considered health as a result of the legislation and consciously chose nutritious options also encouraged the manufacturer to produce healthier goods in more variety and volume. Economists Caswell and Mojduszka forecasted that “in the long run producers are likely to respond by developing or purchasing new ingredients to replace less healthful nutrients without significantly changing the taste of products.”156

Food companies and industry trade groups, however, were ambivalent about the regulations. A lack of public trust hurt all companies, and specific corporations whose competitive advantages were compromised (such as Quaker) were among the NLEA's strongest supporters. However, many found themselves unable to endorse stricter regulation as a matter of short-term cost as well as principle. The upfront costs for industry were predicted to be relatively insignificant—on the order of $2400 to $10800 per product.157 (Thomas Hine remembers 1993, the deadline for new labels, as a “managerial nightmare” but a “busy and prosperous year” for package designers.)158 However, the changes to marketing strategy were profound. The new rules had the potential to remake the industry; apprehension stemmed from uncertainty over who would best grasp the new opportunity.

Quaker too was initially unsure of how it should use the new regulations to its best advantage. “It's a mixed blessing,’’ said Luther McKinney, a Quaker VP. “We are obviously pleased they are finally getting this out,” McKinney noted, but he remained concerned about overly stringent standards of proof for claims.159 In another interview with Advertising Age, McKinney noted “this is a good thing for consumers and a good thing in terms of resolving who's in charge of food labeling that the company would be dealing with a single federal government rather than the more pugnacious local and state regulators.160 By the mid-1990s, however, with cereal sales mired in a postoat bran slump, innovative new strategies were in order.161 The organization sought to leverage any competitive advantage available, and a potential health claim was an attractive opportunity.

Without a doubt, the NLEA was perceived as a major boost to the regulatory powers of the FDA. While the agency had little say in the legislation, the NLEA's passage granted the agency license to rewrite its regulations with more stringent criteria and harsher penalties, but also a pathway toward industry–agency cooperation.162 It became a “popular measure that earned the agency credit for working to make reforms that industry could live with.”163 Hilts believes the FDA accomplished its goals because its final proposal was “a balance of rules that protected consumers, ensured that ample information was available to them, and encouraged businesses to compete on the basis of health and nutrition.”164 For the food industry, NLEA meant increased accountability and the expense of new labeling, but these negative effects were easily counterbalanced by new marketing opportunities and increased credibility. Consumers were given the empowering information to choose a responsible diet, while maintaining the ability to buy—and eat—as they pleased. In many ways, NLEA was not a perfect compromise, but it was actionable. The law brought order to a method of claims-making that became a uniquely powerful appeal to the modern consumer.

Totality of the evidence: scientific specificity in health claims

“Bran does not irritate, it titillates!”

- Dr. J.H. Kellogg, The Itinerary of A Breakfast (1920)165

The NLEA presented challenges for food manufacturers, but also exciting new opportunities. Both hinged on the new level of specificity mandated by the legislation. As changes in the regulatory environment encouraged food companies to seek approval for health messages, debates over what was being specified in any prospective claim—indeed, over what could be known or specified—intensified. Health claims manifested a concept of products’ uniqueness in promoting health, mediated through peer review studies and other expert testimony but certified with a stamp of government approval. The broad public credibility that a claim garnered was invaluable in a skeptical market. There could be no question: companies sought FDA certification because it now had market value.

The type of health claims possible under NLEA leveraged specific information in an attempt to satisfy a number of different constituents. Expert bodies like the FDA appreciated the rhetorical weight that the scientific language of specificity provided. The public would also benefit, consumer advocates argued, from certified claims served to educate about good dietary practices. Most crucial for food companies was the ability to create maximum market value from a claim that benefited their product over their competitors.

The eventual 875-page release explicitly spelled out regulatory policy under the new NLEA labeling regime, from standardized serving sizes to label formatting.166 In anticipation of health claim petitions, the FDA did its best to be ready, outlining its preferences for paperwork formatting and evidence submission.167 Most important for the future of Quaker oatmeal were 375 pages detailing official policies on “use of health claims that characterize the relationship of a substance to a disease or health related condition on the labels and in labeling of foods.”168 These included “pre-approved” exemplar claims that the FDA had ratified at the suggestion of the original Congressional legislation.169 These claims, which included such food-disease relationships as “fruit and vegetable consumption and a decreased cancer risk,” were generally unobjectionable. These claims were meant partially to codify conventional scientific wisdom and establish a template for the phrasing of a summary of current scientific evidence in later, petitioned label claims.

Interestingly, in its initial rulings, the FDA determined that Congress’ suggestion of a soluble fiber heart disease relationship did not meet its standards of proof. “The evidence is not sufficient to attribute the reduction in risk to soluble fiber or to a specific type or characteristic of soluble fiber,” the agency concluded in its 1993 Federal Register report.170 For decades, however, health commentators had considered the bran (and thus, fiber) of grains to be healthful and decried the nutritional worth of modern refined grains.171 Indeed, the medical establishment's faith in the worth of fiber in cancer prevention legitimized All-Bran's illegal claim in 1984. There was little disagreement that fiber was beneficial, such a diverse category needed to be better defined.

Much of the problem, it seemed, was a lack of specificity. The FDA repudiated overgeneralization: “wheat bran, oat bran, and rice bran (all heterogeneous mixtures of fibers) are not similar in composition. It is also very difficult to analyze dietary fiber chemically, and thus it is hard to correlate the role of specific fiber components to health effects.”172 The agency ended its literature review by leaving the future open: “If, however, additional information becomes available [ …] then the FDA encourages manufacturers to petition for a health claim for their particular product.”173 Clearly, to attain greater claim specificity, a petitioner would need to assemble more specific and impressive data.

Soon after the FDA revealed its claims-making methodology in 1993, it became clear that Quaker had been hard at work marshalling support for oatmeal and its beta-glucan. The company had sponsored a meta-analysis, a statistical paper combining the results of several previous studies to arrive at a more powerful estimation of a variable's effect, in 1992. Published in JAMA, this controversial analysis examined 20 studies, and its researchers concluded that bran had a “modest” effect on blood cholesterol, (about 5 “points,” measured in milligram per deciliter).174

Quaker trumpeted the results as a validation of its namesake product's health value. Skeptics, predictably, cried foul, suspecting Quaker's sponsorship had purchased the results. Such studies, however, are not generally considered a breach of medical ethics; corporate sponsorship is common, and Quaker's support was clearly disclosed in the report. Vitamin historian Rima Apple notes that commercial companies and nutrition scientists have had a mutual understanding for decades. “While advertisements were quick to support their products with the latest scientific research, the needs of commerce also helped shape that very research. Scientific researchers, unsurprisingly, were not oblivious to the concerns of manufacturers.”175

The NLEA finally went into effect on May 8, 1994. Quaker's petition was submitted to the FDA less than 1 y later, on March 22, 1995, citing support from 37 studies from 1980 to 1995.176 The petition effectively collated the preexisting evidence “suggesting that oat fiber reduces blood cholesterol levels by 5–10%[that] has appeared since the early 1960s.”177 It was hoped that this targeted and highly bounded claim petition would provide exactly the specificity that the FDA had called for earlier when it rejected the “whole grain” claim in 1993. Here was a specific food, and even a specific type of fiber, beta-glucan, that appeared to be oatmeal's “active ingredient.”178

One might read gratitude into the FDA's statement: “The petitioner stated that while current research may not demonstrate that beta-glucan is the only component of oats that affects blood lipids, it does suggest that it is an excellent marker for cholesterol reduction potential.”179 Instead of further whole food headaches, the scientific evidence could be focused around a reductionist view of a single ingredient. Furthermore, Quaker was able to provide a dosage recommendation to show a measurable effect; it speculated that 3 g of beta-glucan daily would reduce cholesterol 5% in most subjects.180 Here, ironically, was a food being discussed in terms usually reserved for drugs, so as not be held to the stringent standards of a drug.

The claims-making process revealed that not all epidemiological evidence was equal in the eyes of the FDA. The agency thoroughly critiqued the studies Quaker submitted, evaluating each study according to how well it fulfilled agency goals for accuracy and scope in data collection, statistical analysis, and proper methodology.181 The agency eventually rejected 20 of the 37 initial studies submitted. Some studies simply did not show a conclusive anticholesterol benefit. Others suffered from poor design and could not be generalized.182 Despite these weaknesses, the FDA's reviewers determined that a significant scientific case remained when less-than-satisfactory studies were removed.

The final FDA ruling appeared in the Federal Register on January 23, 1997, after nearly 2 y of deliberation:

Based on its review of evidence [ …], the agency has concluded that the type of soluble fiber found in whole oats, i.e., beta (β)-glucan soluble fiber, is primarily responsible for the association between consumption of whole oats [ …] and an observed lowering of blood cholesterol levels. [ …] Therefore, the FDA has decided to make the subject of the health claim “soluble fiber from whole oats” and has concluded that claims on foods relating the consumption of soluble fiber from whole oats to reduced risk of heart disease are justified.183,184

The ruling had limitations, however. The claim would apply only if a single serving of the food product contained at least 3-quarters of a gram of beta-glucan, no more than 3 g of fat and no more than 1 g of saturated fat per serving.185 Quaker originally requested an unqualified claim, without any caveats like “as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol,” citing 9 studies that showed a blood cholesterol benefit without any change in diet. Removing a “lifestyle change” injunction would have made the marketing pitch yet stronger.

However, the FDA was not inclined to return to the oat bran sensationalism of the late 1980s. Dr. David Kessler, the commissioner of the FDA from 1990 to 1997, believed that era's labels had been “so opaque that only consumers with the hermeneutic abilities of a Talmudic scholar can peel back the encoded layers of meaning.”186 The agency insisted upon a qualification based on a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet appearing in the label language, as it represented public health policy consensus of the time. “Absolute claims about diseases affected by diet are generally not possible,” the ruling maintained, “because such diseases are almost always multifactorial.”187 The FDA wished to curtail interpretive marketing hyperbole; it viewed these health claims primarily as an educational tool and source of responsible dietary information.

Why is this man smiling? Oats approved for first FDA claim

“He receives comfort like cold porridge.”

- William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1610)188

The significance of the health claim approval was certainly not lost on the media. Nutrition and health were already popular topics in most general interest publications, but the Quaker story combined health with a significant legal landmark and multibillion dollar business opportunities. The New York Times believed the decision was “cause for elation [ …] for executives at Quaker.”189

The possibilities of approved claims opened a multitude of options for product promotion. “An approval would not only breathe life back into the flat [ …] cereal industry,”Advertising Age claimed, but would “revitalize ad spending and new products” across the category.190 Marketers were particularly excited because the FDA claim would not only make food-specific claims acceptable but would also allow them to use plain, simple language (provided it was not untrue). An industry consultant believed that “The only manufacturers who won't be increasing their ad spending as a result of this claim will be those asleep at the switch. All the smart marketers” would be “trying to take advantage of a long overdue approval by the FDA.”191 As exciting as the claim was for cereal manufacturers, the repercussions for the entire food industry made the approval the subject of massive anticipation.

Both before and after the claim approval, the FDA found itself under heavy criticism. Regulators spent all of 1996 processing comments that flowed in response to the agency's proposal. The claim proposal elicited “approximately 1,450 letters, each containing one or more comments, from consumers, professional organizations, government agencies, industry, trade associations, and health care professionals.”192 Many comments took issue with terminology: Quaker's proposal had used the term “oatmeal” to refer to all whole oat products, which risked consumer confusion. Other commenters also perceived a Quaker bias for its own signature product: studies were submitted claiming similar benefits for other grains as sources of beta-glucan; other writers advocated for other soluble fibers and denied beta-glucan's uniqueness.193

The more serious reservations, however, had to do with the possibilities for consumers to be misled even if Quaker made a legitimate case for its claim. Some opposed the FDA's ruling out of a worry that a health claim would “mislead consumers in that it creates the impression that consumption of certain foods (oat bran and oatmeal) alone will protect against CHD [coronary heart disease].”194 This “magic bullet” reservation did not dissipate after the claim was approved. Representatives of the consumer health group CSPI came out strongly against the health claim. The center's director of nutrition said of the FDA position that oats supplemented a cholesterol-lowering diet and regular exercise: “It's like saying that oats and aspirin will get rid of your headache.” CSPI maintained that the FDA's approval “had less to do with nutrition than the oat industry's lobbying campaign to recover from lagging sales after the oat fad of a decade ago.”195

Certainly, no one argued that the claim was without market value. An FDA-certified health food would appeal to consumers increasingly consumed by what Michael Pollan has termed the American Paradox: “a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.”196 Many of these nutrition-conscious Americans were also growing highly skeptical of food industry messages, making an independently certified health claim important for credibility. More Americans were basing their buying behavior on health every year: a 1998 study found that “almost 80% of Americans believed nutrition to be ‘very important’ in their purchase decisions and 70% of American consumers read nutrition labels on food products.”197 Legitimated health claims were becoming a consumer mandate.

In the aftermath of Quaker's successful petition, its executives aggressively sought to leverage oatmeal's new certification. “It was obvious that Quaker should capitalize on the FDA's recent approval [ …]. A huge segment of American society was already affected” by heart health worries.198 The market potential was massive. While the FDA's earlier decision to proclaim plant-based foods protective was a scientifically conservative and prudent decision, it was far from viable ad copy. Quaker's claim added specificity to make oatmeal seem uniquely healthy. Obviously, the ability to affect sales was much greater with an implicit recommendation to “eat more oats” rather than a general exhortation toward more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.

Here, Quaker stayed true to an old advertising maxim: the most successful products need a “unique selling proposition” or USP. The USP was a theory of prominent mid-century ad executive Rosser Reeves (1910 to 1984), which stated a product needed a singular reason for why it needed to be bought or was better than its competitors.199 Reeves was highly critical of so-called brand image advertising, warning that a brand was a result of quality and could be complementary to, but did not replace, superior products.

Quaker's experience, in many ways, mirrored Reeves’ theory. For over 100 y, it had one of the longest lived and strongest brands in consumer products. “The Quaker trademark was registered in 1877,” food industry analysts Michman and Mazze report, “and Quaker was the first firm in the breakfast cereal industry to have high identification with consumers.”200 To further grow the market for a mature product, however, new approaches would be needed to return to product differentiation in and to increase oatmeal sales. “Admakers relied less on the old ways of advertising to reach this savvy audience [of health-conscious baby boomers], which questioned the sincerity of advertisers’ pitches.” Government certification of Quaker's claim created an authentic point of differentiation would make oatmeal attractive to the cynical but highly lucrative health consumer of the 1990s.

Skeptics wondered why Quaker expended the time and resources it did for a health claim, while others would simply take advantage. It was “a long, arduous process to get the FDA approval [ …] And, if approval is given, all other oatmeal marketers could make the same claim.”201 While this was technically true, the strength of Quaker's brand meant that the company was uniquely positioned to take advantage of an oat health claim. With 60% share of the hot cereal market in 1993, any expansion of the segment would be predominantly in Quaker's favor.202 If a product helped all of oatmeal, it would help Quaker exponentially more.

If shareholders outside of Quaker's management had not already grasped the significance of the FDA claim, the company's 1997 annual report was quick to make it clear: the front cover announced, “We’ve turned the corner.”203 As a key to that transition, “Quaker generated excitement in 1997 with the approval of the first-ever food-specific health claim by the Food and Drug Administration. We made sure that the word got out [… and] consumers listened, as evidenced by another 4 consecutive quarters of volume growth.”204 Polly Kawalek, the head of Quaker's oatmeal division, was completely convinced. She “firmly believed that publicizing these results [ …] could form the foundation for an effective marketing campaign to encourage regular consumption of oatmeal by adults.”205 With a solid appeal to nutrition-focused adults (particularly mothers), the entire market size would increase, as these consumers typically bought for families.

In addition to driving growth, the claim would help to reinforce the company's overall identity as “a leading producer and marketer of wholesome foods and beverages.”206 Quaker sought to cement this brand image in consumer minds through extensive spending on announcements for the general public as well as the medical community. The familiar Quaker man beamed up from the pages of the New York Times as the copy asked, “Why is this man smiling?” Quaker ran a full-color advertisement about the potential claim on January 14, 1996, the day of the FDA proposal's release in the Federal Register and an entire year before the claim would be officially sanctioned.207 Quaker clearly had a sense of history as it boasted of the “first food-specific health claim.”

One year later, the January 22, 1997 advertisement in the New York Times again featured the familiar Quaker, looking rather pleased with himself:

“Now he has another reason to smile! The FDA approves the first food-specific health claim: Soluble fiber from oatmeal, as part of a low saturated fat, low cholesterol diet, may reduce the risk of heart disease. Quaker Oatmeal. Oh, what those oats can do.”208

Quaker had been the first to capitalize on major transition in regulatory priorities for the FDA. As the agency's outlook changed toward a positive promotional agenda, so too did the attitude of industry.209 No longer was the relationship with the government merely one of mitigating harm to profit potential. The savviest marketers would shift from developing the most ambitious claims the FDA would not ban, to working with the agency to craft unique, certified product statements and reach consumers. Approval could be a major boost to credibility and a market advantage. “Does oat fiber lower blood cholesterol levels? Of course it does—conditionally,” Nestle qualifies. It is “the potential marketing benefits—not the science—that explain companies’ persistent attempts to obtain FDA authorization for health claims.”210

Conclusion

When Quaker's New York Times advertisement ran in January 1997, the Quaker had any number of reasons to smile. FDA regulation, lapsed since the 1980s, had been reinstituted, but in a form that reflected American consumers’ desires for healthy, honestly advertised food. The NLEA changed the regulatory environment, making claims more difficult but also imbuing them with greater significance. To be scientifically defensible, food had to be broken into constituents, tested, quantified. A natural product had to be fit into the reductionist nutritional paradigm. The shift provided Quaker with a competitive advantage, as it had one of the few products with a long history of peer-review studies showing a health effect. Oats were certified with the specificity to make the product seem uniquely healthy, a new and differentiated claim concerning a major health risk.

In response, the food industry developed an appreciation for the market value of FDA approval. A shift in perspective occurred, from working around regulation to make effective marketing pitches, to working with or even through the FDA to differentiate a product. Certification meant market share, millions of dollars, even a revitalized corporate identity. Quaker's experience, if it proved successful, would be at the vanguard of a new way to sell products. The implications of using such certified scientific knowledge as a promotional tool were profound. The food industry certainly saw the commercial possibilities, but on a larger level the FDA's labeling decisions meant that science now entered every consumer's life on an unprecedented level. As consumers faced rows of labels hawking health claims, many could hardly resist thinking of their food in biomedicalized, disease-oriented terms. Previously obscure science had been inextricably linked with a basic, universal experience—the purchase and consumption of food.

The labeling controversy combined several of the most contentious debates in professional discourse: scientific, political, and high-stakes financial conflict. Throughout these controversies, however, no party lost faith in the explanatory (or rhetorical) power of science. Each used its own interpretation of scientific studies, or invoked the scope of scientific surety to show why its position was valid as opposed to others’ interpretations. Sound, scientific nutrition was the universal good, common rhetoric without a consensus conclusion. When a notion like the biomedical certainty of clinical studies is so unquestioningly accepted yet utilized at the center of so much debate, one wonders how many different motives are served by the concept. The ability to reach compromise and achieve the interests of government, industry, and the consumer speak to that multiplicity.

Cash Crop: Leveraging Scientific Evidence 1997 to 2010

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Wild Oats: The Oat Bran Craze 1988 to 1990
  5. Gruel Intentions: The NLEA and Quaker's Health Claim, 1990 to 1997
  6. Cash Crop: Leveraging Scientific Evidence 1997 to 2010
  7. Conclusion
  8. Abbreviations 
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Written Sources
  12. Secondary Sources
  13. Works Consulted Primary Sources
  14. Secondary Sources
  15. Appendix

“Yours for Health, Wealth, and a Good Breakfast… It maketh a merry heart.”

- Quaker advertisement (1896)211

The 1997 FDA decision to approve a health claim for beta-glucan fiber's relationship to heart disease represented an unprecedented opportunity for Quaker as a company and a watershed moment for the food industry as a whole. As with any historic opportunity, however, company executives found themselves under pressure to take advantage of the new market opportunities. Quaker integrated nutrition into traditional consumer appeals such as taste, convenience, and its strong brand image. Science constituted new “added value” for its products.

When vice president Polly Kawalek assumed executive control of Quaker's oatmeal division in 1996, she envisioned a new direction for Quaker products that brought its health appeal to as many consumers as possible. Kawalek's direct orders from the executive office were “to cater to oatmeal consumers at every stage of life and to introduce products that were in keeping with Quaker's overall brand profile—products that consumers felt comfortable relying on for good nutrition and pleasing taste.”212 The FDA health claim was an exceptionally powerful tool to shape consumer preferences in this way.

With increasing competition both within the hot cereal industry and from other breakfast options, the company needed new appeal. Through its health claim publicity, Quaker sought to justify higher prices for what was essentially commodity grain.213 Quaker's products, although not expensive in absolute terms, cost on average 56% more than similar private label brands.214 The company's efforts were therefore focused on creating unique, premium options. This new identity would most effectively leverage the Quaker brand and separate it from the commodity competition management feared.

The Quaker group's actions from 1997 to 2000 would not prevent a takeover by the massive multinational PepsiCo in 2001. However, they would create an archetypal approach for integrating America's increased nutrition consciousness into effective marketing and product design. Kawalek obsessed over finding a “breakthrough message that provides a reason for consumers to eat oatmeal,” and found it by combining health with other consumer needs such as convenience, taste, brand appeal, and value. Nutrition reinvented Quaker oatmeal in the 21st century, reimagining a simple grain to reflect how modern consumers understood their food. The health claim cemented Quaker's brand power,

Characterized by the distinctive nature of its brand personality, by the appeal and relevance of its image, by the consistency of its communication, by the integrity of its identity, by the fact that it has stood the test of time [and its ability to] convey subtly different messages to different consumer groups within the same market.215

Even before Quaker effectively leveraged its claim, other manufacturers were hard at work developing cases for health messages of their own. In the 4 y before Pepsi acquired Quaker, major manufacturers had 10 claims approved by FDA review, 8 of which attempted to leverage a heart health appeal like oats.216 The food industry was awakened to new opportunities in product formulation and promotion in January 1997, and Quaker's oatmeal was served for breakfast.

Gains from grains: health claims in Quaker's business plan

“I had as like you would tell me a mess of porridge.”

- William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602)217

In order to understand Quaker Oats’ urgency in applying for and receiving the first food-specific health claim, it is helpful to consider where the company stood in the early 1990s. When its claim petition was submitted in 1994, Quaker Oats faced an uncertain future in a highly competitive marketplace. However, the rapid changes following the institution of the NLEA in 1993 offered a novel opportunity to reshape the new regulatory and retail environment. Quaker's oatmeal division was severely challenged: it was fighting a loss of pricing power due to new competition, the industry's highest promotional costs, and serious questions about its brand's relevance to modern consumers. With a claim, the company hoped to differentiate its products, reach out more effectively to a segmented market, and revitalize its brand image through a breakthrough health claim.

“The last decade of the twentieth century is as critical as it is unique,” industry forecasters claimed at the time.

It is critical because of the extreme pervasiveness of environmental and technological change affecting the structure of the food industry [… and] unique inasmuch as sophisticated technological changes along with social changes have created many more opportunities for firms to develop differential advantages.218

Quaker was particularly well suited to develop just such an advantage. As the dominant maker of oatmeal, a product with solid scientific support, it could offer consumers an FDA-certified health food. Just as the FDA and FTC inaction on Kellogg's All-Bran had broken open a Pandora's [cereal] box in the late 1980s, a successful Quaker campaign would be the trendsetter for a new era of government-mediated health claims.

Quaker Oats was in rapid transition during the FDA's deliberations. When it acquired the Gatorade line from the small Stokely-vanKamp group in 1983, Quaker unwittingly became a new company. Gatorade became phenomenally successful and took control of the sports drink category, which was growing exponentially as part of the same interest in functional food that had fueled the oat bran craze. Beverages became the fastest growing part of Quaker's line, making up 42% of sales by 2000.219 By 1998, CEO Bob Morrison felt confident enough to label Quaker “primarily a beverage concern,” with Gatorade the “gem in our North American portfolio.”220,221 Quaker's most rapid growth was outside its historical core business.

Although hot cereal products were not the segment in Quaker's portfolio with cachet in the 1990s, many analysts like those at Bernstein Group, a leading market research firm, still considered its historical business key to future success. Although Gatorade's meteoric rise had captivated management and media attention,

We believe that the performance of the much more mundane (and, on a relative basis, profitable) hot-cereal business will ultimately determine whether Quaker consistently achieves its targeted goal of 7% real earnings growth. While the growth prospects for Gatorade are clearly superior to those of Quaker's oatmeal business, the margins in hot cereal (20%+) remain among the best in the industry.222

Hot cereal would be challenging, but oatmeal remained the heart and soul of Quaker Oats’ image, as well as its profitability.

The company's market position varied widely across categories. In addition to its namesake, Quaker owned market-leading powerhouse brands in Gatorade, Rice Cakes, Chewy granola bars, and Rice-a-Roni.223 In the overall breakfast market, the group was a distant third behind behemoths Kellogg and General Mills.224 Yet Quaker had always been “king of the hot cereal market,” and held a commanding 67% by 1993.225,226 The margins for oatmeal were superb. In 1992, Quaker enjoyed 20% profit margins for its hot breakfast offerings.227 The company jealously defended its position from other name brands, flooding the market with promotions and price cuts to drive out any incursions by other brand names.228

Despite its dominance, Quaker had reason to worry about the hot cereal segment. First and foremost, hot cereal was not a growth area. Following the peak of the oat bran craze, hot cereal sales declined or held even every year thereafter.229 Analysts believed “while Quaker is the market leader in this segment, the size of the market will probably diminish over time” if conditions did not change.230 Indeed, the fact that Quaker had actually increased its market share in the early 1990s had little effect on analysts’ projections, so dismal was the category outlook.

The hot cereal category as a whole failed to connect with a number of consumers through the basic “value added” framework of food processing logic. Following Marion Nestle, one might define the industry's traditional “marketing imperatives” as taste, cost, and convenience.231,232 In the view of Quaker executives, hot cereals were struggling because other options were equally cost-effective and often as tasty, but far less time consuming.233 To make matters worse, hot cereals were increasingly feeling price pressure from a new source. Private label (store brand) products formed a rapidly growing category in the early 1990s, as consumers “continue[d] to discover that private label products provide[d] high quality at significantly lower price points than their branded counterparts.”234 By 1993, private label offerings held 10% market share and were rapidly gaining ground.235

Quaker's frustrations with private label competition stemmed from the fact that the branded product was sold at a markup greater than half over generic (one of the highest in consumer products), though there were very few ways that their product was differentiated from cheaper alternatives.236 The general feeling in the industry was that “hot cereal makers are, for the most part, [ …] selling a commodity product for value-added prices.”237 Without some new appeal, analysts believed Quaker's brands would likely experience a “gradual decline in cereal margins as the company is forced to lower the price points of its less unique brands [ …] in order to compete with less expensive private label alternatives.”238

The emergence of competitive, quality private label products also challenged the Quaker ethos of extensive promotional spending to propel their products to market success. In 1993, Quaker spent more than $983 million to promote its products, as compared to $357 million in 1990 when its spending on oat bran hype had peaked.239 These were the highest promotional costs of any producer in the food industry, relative to food sales.240 Instead of building a brand with “pull-side” consumer appeals to make consumers desire the product, Quaker spent 65% of its promotional budget on so-called “push tactics” or “trade greasing.” This meant paying retailers to put the brand's products on sale and increase in-store visibility to “push” sales off store shelves.241

Yet, the overwhelming focus on price promotions was not proving terribly effective. These promotions encouraged precisely the wrong sort of buyer behavior; “customers responded to price deals by stocking up during the promotion with enough oatmeal to last until the next promotion.”242 By 1993, promotion cost growth had outpaced actual sales growth by 6% over the prior decade.243 More money thrown at cost promotions produced diminishing returns, in addition to its expense.

In light of these challenges, many at Quaker thought a paradigm shift was in order.244 Quaker's hot cereal lead Polly Kawalek advocated a return to Quaker's roots and the institution of a more aggressive “pull-side” strategy to stimulate consumer demand through intelligent consumer marketing. This smarter allocation of promotional energies would work synergistically to drive demand for Quaker products, unrelated to their price. Kawalek noted that “price was of some concern to consumers, but less so than product benefits and also less so than intangible benefits derived from the brand name itself.”245 So long as the brand's benefits were effectively communicated to the appropriate audiences, management was confident the Quaker name would continue to be powerful.

Effective advertising and marketing would be critical to creating and reinforcing perceptions of Quaker quality through nutrition. Although the health claim as eventually approved would apply to all qualifying oat products, regardless of brand, Quaker stood to gain most from the resultant product differentiation. Analysts conceded that “the hot-cereal category has evolved into essentially a two-player game [Quaker and generic];” Quaker applied for the health claim with full awareness of the fact that it was near synonymous with “oats” in the mind of the American consumer.246

If all went to plan, the oatmeal health claim would constitute nothing less than a reimagination of oatmeal's place in the diet of the average consumer. Michman and Mazze believed “brand revitalization [ …] can be approached by market expansion” and this became a corporate quest as Quaker began to leverage its health claim in 1998. They clarified that “[brand revitalization] can mean finding new uses for the brand or new users of the brand, or getting users to buy more of the brand.”247 Health claims could make the crucial difference in all 3 senses, adding a new “use” for oatmeal in preventing heart disease, which would interest more users and motivate them to eat it more often, even daily for the cholesterol benefit. An answer to the company's largest marketing conundrum—how to shape consumer behavior—might be handed down in a single regulatory decision.

When the FDA finalized that decision in January 1997, Quaker's situation had become yet more complex. In 1994, the company attempted to diversify its beverage business with the $1.7 billion purchase of the Snapple iced tea brand. “Even now,” Harvard Business School professor John Deighton claims, “mere mention of Quaker Oats’ acquisition of Snapple causes veteran dealmakers to shudder.”248 The brand was at an absolute peak when it was purchased, and quickly lost momentum as Quaker bungled marketing and distribution. Quaker divested the brand in 1997 for a paltry $300 million, but the losses were significant beyond cash; the company had also folded several divisions to achieve the liquidity to buy Snapple.249 The blow to stockholder confidence was so severe that CEO William Smithburg, who had been guided Quaker since 1979, lost his job.250

When new CEO Bob Morrison took over in 1997, he immediately sought to revitalize the group, eliminating senior management and reorganizing the company structure to highlight the prime “value-driving businesses”; Gatorade and oatmeal were to lead the way. More important than internal structure was the public image Morrison cultivated, however: “Quaker positioned itself as the manufacturer that offered consumers food and beverage products with ‘healthy nutritional profiles.’”251 Quaker was the preeminent maker of oats, but needed to make oats matter to consumers. Armed with an FDA claim, Quaker sought to differentiate oats from competing products and categories, more intelligently segment markets, and effectively leverage one of the nation's most trusted brands.

Accounting for taste: tailoring health products for market segments

“Truly, a peck of provender: I could munch your good dry oats.”

- William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595)252

As a result of the FDA's approval, oats were effectively positioned as a food with unique health benefits. The scientific implications of such official approval did not concern businesspeople, however. In a way, the FDA's approval of a health claim exclusive to oat fiber created a “brand” around oats. Consumers historically had a variety of feelings about the oat, but government certification created near-universal acceptance as a uniquely healthy natural food. Let academics bicker over proof; the businesspeople at Quaker were occupied with promoting a newfound brand property. “It is possible,” wrote leading food marketing researchers, “to influence consumers to see this utilitarian benefit as the most salient related to the food.”253 Quaker believed it possessed an appealing product, but could overcome major shortcomings (like relatively bland taste and longer preparation time) by reframing oats in this nutrition paradigm.

The standard practice with a successful brand was to press name recognition for further market advantage through “brand extension.” The creation of new offerings with the desirable characteristics of the original product, but with adjustments made for differing consumer tastes and lifestyles, expands the brand's appeal.254 Brand extensions can make a company more forward looking as well; they help by “accessing new sources of revenue, by revitalizing a brand in the eyes of the consumer, or by helping a business to respond to a significant change in the market.”255

Extension of the new oat identity would mean reconstructing oats and their “goodness” as ingredients, which could add appeal to various Quaker products and the corporation as a whole. Minimally processed, natural oats had been the context of research and federal approval, but Quaker recognized that its consumers would be interested in—and willing to pay a premium for—convenient, tasty oat products such as new flavors, instant cups, and breakfast bars. Oats as a health-promoting identity, not only as a single-component natural food, would be key to effectively leveraging the claim to maximum benefit. Thus, even products that did not meet the FDA's minimum criteria for the heart health claim would have their nutritional appeal boosted, merely through being part of the Quaker brand, now linked with oats and their health benefit.

Many institutional food processors believe the elements that consumers consider when purchasing food are price, taste, and convenience.256 Marketing theorists Ronald Michman and Edward Mazze stress that a brand's innate appeal constitutes an important factor as well, citing multiple studies to support this observation.257 Over the past 50 y, however, as consumers have enjoyed increased discretionary income, prices of relatively inexpensive staples (such as oats) have become less important.258 In 2003, marketing publication Brand Week noted that

Decades ago, when times were simpler consumers were interested mostly in the product's taste and value. Packaging was a secondary consideration, other than throwing in special offers to tempt kids. But these days, with meal occasions boiled down to their bare essentials, packaging and delivery have emerged as key weapons in the cereal marketer's arsenal.259

Many consumers now defined “value” as much by the box (health claims and convenient preparation) as what was in the box (taste and price). Competitive advantage in the cereal category could be attained through the health, convenience, and brand characteristics a cereal possessed.260

As new boxes of oatmeal were stocked on store shelves in early 1997, it was hard to miss the fact that Quaker deemed health an added value. A new label loudly proclaimed oats’ certified health value. “Soluble fiber from oat bran,” the label states (in large type), “as part of a low saturated fat, low cholesterol diet” (in smaller type), “may reduce the risk of heart disease” (stylized and bolded, in a red heart symbol). Predictably, oatmeal's role is highlighted while the relative importance of overall diet is deemphasized. This is hardly surprising; the claim is only part public service announcement but all advertisement.

Far more revealing of the deep impact of an FDA-mediated claim is the way in which Quaker has marketed all of its oat products, including those that do not meet the claim criteria. From granola bars to breakfast cookies, the company promoted “whole grain Quaker oats parents insist on” as an assurance of quality and responsible eating. “Your mouth may think it's a cookie,” Quaker promises, “but your body will know better.”261 The more generic “goodness of oats” may not be tied to any scientific or federal authority, but the unstated associations that those authorities have certified with the claim certainly matter to consumers.

Brand.

Quaker's image was based upon a commitment to a good faith effort for its customers. The company had been a pioneering national advertiser since Henry Parsons Crowell's national campaigns in the 1880s made Quaker a household name. As early as the 1920s, company chairman John Stuart had valued Quaker's “brands, trademarks, and goodwill” more highly than its substantial “bricks and mortar” equity. These mores formed the “core of [Quaker's] management philosophy.”262

Brand associations were becoming yet more important in the 1990s; in 1992, marketing theorist Jean Noel Kapferer asserted, “in [the] future, the brand will be the most important asset of the firm.”263 Image was everything for Quaker, fighting hard for space on consumers’ breakfast tables even more than on the store shelf. Because oatmeal was historically at the center of Quaker's corporate identity, marketers believed that a “failure to maintain and support these important [brand] assets can lead to failure of the company itself,” bolstering oatmeal's image through nutrition was critical to the entire corporation.264

“For over 130 years,” Quaker advertisements read in 2009, “we’ve been inspired by the power and wholesome goodness of the amazing oat.”265 The new FDA claim was important to this image, as it gave oats cachet in the present and projected toward a future of good health through tasty, nutritious products certified by science. Quaker sought to take ownership of nutrition as its “brand authority,” the area of expertise that consumers believe a company is a leader. This entailed a circumspect, long-term strategy from the oatmeal division. Camillo Pagano, a Nestle executive in the early 1990s, noted

The authoritative brand must reflect the culture of the company that makes it, the culture of the product category it belongs to, and the culture of the countries in which it is sold and should be managed from three perspectives: what it has stood for in the past, what is needed from it today, and what is expected from it tomorrow.266

Quaker's emphasis on the “goodness of oats” and its unique and longstanding relationship with this nourishing natural product informed its entire product portfolio, and its corporate image.

Quaker had been one of America's most trusted brands since it became one of the country's first national brands in the late 19th century. Certainly, the Quaker enjoyed an enviably positive reputation. “Brand equity was bulletproof nutritionally and evoked wonderful memories,” noted Quaker oatmeal division chief Polly Kawalek.267 In poll after poll, Quaker was identified as one of the companies consumers trusted most. “Clearly, there is a leverageable opportunity,” said Prudential Securities analyst Jeff Kanter, interviewed by Advertising Age. “Very few brands mean wholesome and better-for-you snacks more than Quaker.”268

However, as corporate executives reviewed the company's performance in the mid-1990s to revise long-term strategy, the mark's familiarity had actually become something of an impediment. “Consumers thought they already knew all about it,” Kawalek observed.269 Quaker's research showed the market effects of that boredom—consumers bought oatmeal out of habit or family tradition, giving the brand one of the food industry's highest household penetration percentages; 80% of homes had Quaker oatmeal in the pantry.270 Nearly every home had the familiar, round, red-white-and-blue Quaker Oats canister. Yet when it came time to eat breakfast, the smiling Quaker that had appealed in the supermarket lost out to other options.

The reasons varied; for many consumers, more convenient breakfasts that could be made quickly eased a hectic morning. Others were attracted by more indulgent breakfasts laden with more fat, sugar, and salt than Quaker's relatively bland cereal grain. Quaker needed to give consumers a fresh reason to think of its oats. If consumers remembered oatmeal for heart health and ate it daily, consumption would accelerate and demand would increase without needing to buy more ads or lower prices. Brand appeal would move its premium oatmeal into shopping carts, and the new health appeal would make Quaker appealing out of the supermarket, as well. With oatmeal moving off store shelves and cupboard shelves at a faster pace, Quaker would be making money in sales and reducing its promotional costs in one stroke.

Convenience.

In the decades after the Second World War, Americans, especially women, increasingly worked outside the home. With 59.5% of women (and 77% between the ages of 25 and 54) in the work force by 1997, time to cook meals was shrinking in proportion to the increase in spending power 2-income households enjoyed.271 This meant that working families would seek—and pay for—food that fit with their more hectic lifestyles. Products’ ease and speed of preparation thus became increasingly important concerns.272

“Never underestimate the appetite of American consumers for convenience;” Polly Kawalek made this a mantra.273 Yet no matter how “quick” or even “instant” Quaker oatmeal had become over the past century, heating still required time and an appliance.274 Cold cereal was traditionally the convenient option, but foods that could be eaten as breakfast substitutes while commuting, such as shakes, bagels, and muffins, and granola bars were taking market share from cereals, hot and cold alike. Nordhielm believes that “Quaker regarded these [convenience] barriers to consumption to be of greater danger to [its] volume goals than any direct market share threat from competitors.”275

The company's oatmeal had always struggled with the way Americans in the late 20th century eat breakfast, but recent failures in the mid-1990s magnified the problem, as attempts at making oats a convenience food actually backfired and hurt conventional oatmeal sales. For example, Quaker's “Quick and Hearty” microwaveable oatmeal was “virtually indistinguishable” from the familiar old-fashioned Quaker tube. The old-fashioned oats’ promotional budget was entirely shifted to Quick and Hearty, and both products suffered. Quick and Hearty was discontinued in 1996 (soon after its introduction), but promotional funding did not return to the classic oatmeal, and thus sales did not either.276 Without a major strategy change, oatmeal's reentry into the modern breakfast would be challenging.

The paradigm—and the pitch—shifted in the wake of the 1997 claim approval. The government-approved promotional boost was ecstatically received at headquarters. Although “oatmeal never achieved parity with substitute products in terms of perceived convenience,” nutrition offered a chance to redefine precisely what product was being sold, to Quaker's advantage. Oatmeal was thus more than a breakfast food; it was a daily commitment to good health. When one was making a prudent, healthy choice, an extra minute seemed more justifiable.

The oatmeal division's efforts after 1996 to 1997 attempted to circumvent the negative associations with preparing oatmeal. “Express” cups, instant oatmeal sold in a microwaveable cup, were well received as a time and effort-saving innovation, easily purchased at a newsstand or gas station and carried into the car or on the subway for the morning commute. Express cups satisfied both time-pressed consumers and Quaker executives. The cups were an exceptional “value added” product—retailing for about $1.75 in 2009, they sold for 4 times the equivalent amount of flavored instant packets (about 42¢), or 6 times the same amount of plain Quaker oats (less than 30¢). Yet, margins had never been at issue—Quaker needed to increase its volume. It seemed that the key to increasing Americans’ consumption for the long-term lay in options that broke out of the traditional heat-and-eat model entirely.

The rapidly increasing market share of the “breakfast bar” category was predicated on its portability and out-of-the-package readiness. In 2008, Quaker introduced its most convenient “oatmeal” yet.277“Oatmeal to Go” bars removed all preparation entirely—these microwaveable bars, which resemble oat cakes with a drizzle of frosting, might be thought of as an oat-laden version of that childhood breakfast favorite, Kellogg's Pop-Tart. Prebaked and bound together with a liberal helping of fat and sugar, these soft and chewy products boast “the same health benefits as a bowl of Quaker Instant Oatmeal in a convenient breakfast bar.”278

Importantly, this product specifically avoids using FDA claim language, as Oatmeal to Go bars fall far outside the agency's fat and sugar guidelines for the oat claim. The competitive advantage of Quaker's convenience offerings was “all the goodness of oats.” Within this paradigm, the product was providing better nutrition quickly, instead of just satiating hunger. Quaker sought to end oatmeal's dissonance with modern lifestyles by creating a new lifestyle product—health on the go.

Taste.

As thoroughly as Quaker, like any other major food manufacturer, considered every aspect of its products, an appealing taste was universally recognized as a prerequisite to gaining and retaining customers. A food product required significant thought and expenditure in research and development, advertising, branding, packaging, distribution, and countless other considerations. What made these expenses justifiable was an appetizing product consumers reached for repeatedly. Taste built brands.

If the 1980s marked the advent of nutrition-conscious consumers, the 1990s launched a somewhat contradictory trend. “Though they knew that their food should be healthy, Americans were increasingly guided by taste,” notes Nordhielm.279 Many health-conscious consumers also expressed a preference for rich, indulgent food, and novel new tastes. Indeed, industry studies in 1995 and 1998 asked consumers to list their top criteria for choosing a product and showed the 2 trends existing in parallel. Consumers replied that taste and nutrition were their top purchase motivations, with 79% to 81% listing health and 80% to 86% choosing more hedonically.280 Quaker executives saw the opportunity inherent in the numbers. A product consumers saw as healthy but which also had a satisfying taste would appeal to a massive majority of the market.

The increased demand for oatmeal products allowed Quaker to reassess its products’ taste in the overall brand strategy. With new customers buying oatmeal, Quaker attempted to understand what each customer wanted from their morning bowl of oats. The 1980s saw the broad adoption of market segmentation, a technique whereby marketers attempted to identify distinct “segments,” or demographics to target. These lifestyles could be essentialized by age, sex, income, marital status, and any number of other characteristics. “The ultimate aim of this new wave of marketing is to reach different groups with specific messages about how certain products tie into their lifestyles,” advertising theorists claimed.281

Manufacturers hoped to distill the needs of a narrow section of American eaters, and then to address them with perfectly on-pitch advertising and product design. Michman and Mazze viewed market segmentation as highly important for cereal manufacturers, and specifically noted the effectiveness of “strategies that target consumer segments that are nutrition oriented, desire a high-fiber cereal, are diet oriented, desire a natural-ingredients cereal, or are concerned about cholesterol.”282,283 Effectively segmenting the market meant that Quaker could sell value-added products with precisely the “values added” that each consumer desired. These concepts were not new in 1997, yet “adult segments demonstrated unique consumption patterns that had not been recognized by Quaker in the past,” reported Rick Gomez, the director of marketing for the oatmeal division. Whereas the company traditionally had “focused primarily on two consumer groups: kids and adults, with little differentiation of the unique needs of various cohorts within these populations,” the company looked hard at its marketing assumptions as it sought to most effectively to take advantage of oats’ nutrition appeal.284

While marketers found that shoppers shared universal concerns around convenience and similar associations with the Quaker brand, taste was another matter. The 1990s produced several widespread taste trends. Exoticism, rich and indulgent foods, and sweet flavors were shaping American breakfasts.285 However, separate market segments manifested even these broad values in distinct ways. Quaker's attempts to understand the various shoppers who picked up its canister—and to learn something about those who did not—represented an attempt to align its corporate priorities with those of the public. After identifying and targeting specific consumer groups, Quaker got to work designing and marketing products that took advantage of its claims and their associated health appeal.

Key to Quaker's strategy was the targeting of young consumers. The key was “to market to two audiences simultaneously—moms and kids—with two different messages,” Quaker's focus groups determined. “Communicate the health and nutrition benefits to moms and convince kids that oatmeal tastes good and is fun to eat.”286 Moms were informed of oats’ health benefits and lower sugar content. Kids, for their part, were introduced to formulations such as “Sea Adventures” (which turned the oatmeal blue when heated) and “Dinosaur Eggs” (with sugar eggs that melted when microwaved to reveal candy dinosaurs).287 Quaker worked hard to align mothers’ consciences, which it regarded as “nutritional gatekeepers,” with their children's tastes.

Quaker's market research confirmed the suspicion that children were not the only consumers with a serious sweet tooth and hedonist tendencies. As they hurried to longer hours at higher paying, more stressful jobs, consumers increasingly reached for highly sweetened breakfast snacks. These products already accounted for 31% of adults’ breakfasts in 1995, and grew another 4% by 1998.288 It was clear that traditional oatmeal needed updated products to compete for these new tastes. With the added advantage of its heart health claim, Quaker figured it could appeal to both customers’ rational and indulgent natures. The result was a “Deluxe Collection,” developed in 1997. Beginning with Baked Apple and French Vanilla, instant oatmeal expanded to include no fewer than 14 flavors by 2010.289

Quaker marketed to distinct consumer groups’ taste buds, but also attempted to tailor health appeals to specific groups, presented in tasty products. In perhaps the ultimate manifestation of nutrition as a market value, in 1999 Quaker released Nutrition for Women instant flavored oatmeal, enriched with iron, calcium, folic acid, and soy protein.290 These nutrients were selected based on specific health conditions that concerned women, such as bone health. Natural foods proponents may have shuddered at the notion of enriching a pure food with artificially derived nutrients based on inconclusive evidence, but the large female customer base received the product enthusiastically. Encouraged, Quaker added other popular targeted nutrition products, such as “Take Heart” (enriched with potassium to lower blood pressure), High Fiber (with inulin, a chicory-root extract, to provide extra roughage), and Weight Control (low-calorie, artificially sweetened oatmeal with extra fiber and protein for dieters). With consumer segments demanding personalized products, Quaker took health marketing to an entirely new level by tailoring its marketing explicitly to higher frequency oatmeal eaters such as women and dieters.

“It was obvious” to marketing professionals at the time that “Quaker should capitalize on the FDA's recent approval.” The claim would cement Quaker products as an essential part of a healthy modern diet, as “a huge segment of American society was already affected by or had fears of being affected by high cholesterol.”291 No matter what niche Quaker's products attempted to fill, Kawalek's team ensured that nutrition was a centerpiece of the advertising message. After the initial boost in publicity from the claim being approved in 1997, the company sought to keep oats’ benefits for heart health firmly at the center of its product and corporate identity.

Sweet deal: Quaker is acquired by Pepsi

“If this business were to be split up, I would be glad to take the brands, trademarks and goodwill, and you could have all the bricks and mortar, and I would fare better than you.” - Former Quaker chairman John Stuart (1920s)292

To understand Quaker Oats and its approach to nutrition today, it is necessary to see the role the brand plays for PepsiCo, the multibillion-dollar conglomerate that merged with Quaker in 2001. After operating independently for nearly 125 y, the company that had innovated national distribution and branding in America found itself “a relatively small player in food” at the end of the 20th century.293 Though the company remained profitable, its total revenues of $5.04 billion in 2000 (up 7% from the year before) lagged far behind the leaders of an “industry of giants.”294,295 Larger companies like PepsiCo recorded $23 billion in sales that year from a high-profit, low-nutrition combination of soft drinks and Frito-Lay salty snacks.296

Quaker possessed several characteristics that kept its value high. First and foremost was the fact that in the late 1990s Quaker seemed highly attuned to the modern consumer. Gatorade was a high-growth phenomenon, and the company's ability to promote simple oats in the same function-focused manner made the food industry take notice. As a result, Quaker was doubly attractive for its profitability. Every one of Quaker's business units was growing and making money at the turn of the millennium.

Quaker's brand had developed a reputation for health promotions as well as its own fiscal health, putting it squarely at the center of larger businesses’ acquisitive consciousness. Forbes summarized why other brands coveted Quaker's products and reputation:

Quaker had a built-in advantage in selling its granola bars: It was hard to imagine that the guy on the oatmeal box could sell you anything that wasn't going to do your body good. Pepsi and [other successful brands] have the opposite effect on most people: Those brands make one think of summer barbeques and junk food.297

Financial stability made Quaker a safe acquisition, but “brands, trademarks, and good will” continued to be most its valuable assets. Buying Quaker meant that the purchaser had the chance to adopt its hard-won nutritional legitimacy.

After several years of speculation, a bidding war began between PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and France's Groupe Danone in 2000. Pepsi finally made the winning bid on its 2nd attempt, after a low offer was rebuffed. The company would pay $13.4 billion in stock and assume $760 million of Quaker's corporate debt.298 Gatorade, which held overwhelming market share in the sports drink category and earned about $2 billion in revenues annually at the time, was particularly seen as a key to long-term expansion into health-focused food for Pepsi, purveyors of salt and sugar. “Gatorade is expected to give Pepsi a nearly 80% market share of the sports drink space,”Forbes reported. “And that's a deal sweeter than sporty sugar water.”299 But had Pepsi overpaid for the Gatorade brand, given that it was now in possession of a significant food operation outside its core soda-and-sodium competencies?

Most analysts did not expect Quaker's oat business to form part of the Pepsi group permanently; most believed the company would divest the food businesses after a mandatory waiting period imposed by the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). If Pepsi did decide to retain Quaker's food brands, Forbes went so far as to ask whether the soda giant had “wasted” its $14 billion investment by taking on more than it needed in the view of many analysts, Quaker's food business was a “a slow-growth liability that caused Coca-Cola [Pepsi's rival bidder for Quaker] to spit Quaker out like so much unsweetened oatmeal.” If the company was, indeed, holding cereal businesses it did not understand, Forbes humorously suggested that “PepsiCo Chief Executive Steve Reinemund must feel a bit like Dustin Hoffman's character at the end of the 1967 film, The Graduate, looking at his newly stolen bride and wondering: ‘Okay, now what?’”300

Other analysts, such as Bank of America's Bryan Spillane, believed it would not benefit Pepsi to quickly divest Quaker's food lines. They disagreed with the characterization of Pepsi as a beverage maker first and foremost. Just as Quaker had evolved into a functional food brand with the oat health claim and Gatorade, they argued, Pepsi would diversify; health appeal of Quaker's oat businesses would complement the indulgence of Frito-Lay snacks to give Pepsi a more complete portfolio. “Given current trends in beverages and the aging expansion at Frito-Lay North America, this acquisition represents [ …] a preemptive action to fortify and potentially accelerate growth rates over the long term,” Spillane wrote in a research note.301 The debate continued after Quaker formally joined PepsiCo in August 2001.

In the end, Pepsi elected to retain not only Gatorade or those snacks which complemented Frito-Lay's competencies, but the entirety of Quaker. The company thus became one of the 4 operating divisions in the PepsiCo corporation. Though by far the smallest group in terms of revenues (only about 4% in 2009), Quaker Foods North America (QFNA) became the cutting edge of PepsiCo's realigned corporate image, focused on nutrition marketing as an effective public relations tool but also a driver of major profits company-wide through an improved Pepsi image.302 Quaker immediately performed well, posting a 21% improvement in profitability within its first year with Pepsi. But “it was at the operating profit level that the synergies with Quaker were most clearly seen” for Pepsi as a whole; corporate profit rose 11% for the year to $5.3 billion.”303

It was a confluence of all of Quaker's “marketing imperatives”—taste, convenience, brand, and nutrition—that made it such an attractive acquisition for Pepsi. These imperatives had propelled Gatorade's success, which in turn motivated the takeover. However, it was their role in the creation of a health food icon, Quaker Oats, which made operating the entire company a sound decision for Pepsi. Today, PepsiCo is America's largest food company.304 In 2007, it was recognized as “the world's biggest functional food company” poised “at the cutting edge of developments in health.”305 Defined by soda and potato chips only 6 y before, Pepsi has become the leader of an exponentially growing market segment. Analysts believe “its strategy has seen it put health and wellness at the centre of everything it has done since the turn of the [21st] century.”306 It is no coincidence that this commitment to health-conscious products and marketing began in 2000. Pepsi's health kick started with the acquisition of Quaker's famous brands, trademarks, and good will.

Standard and porridge: assessing health claims’ value

“Poor fellow never joyed since the price of oats rose.”307

- William Shakespeare, Henry IV Part I (1597)

The profound implications of an FDA-approved health claim for the Quaker brand have been discussed at length in this chapter. However, the effects of such a change on the independent Quaker corporation's bottom line should be explored. As early as 1993, industry analysts were noting that “hot cereals may hold the key to Quaker's earnings outlook” for the future.308 Quaker's ability to maintain or expand consumer interest a highly lucrative product category—boasting almost unheard-of 30% profit margins—would be a clear indicator of its continued competitiveness across the board.309

The FDA claim was approved at a time when Quaker was engaged in an internal debate over the company's future identity. Gatorade signaled that nutritional products would be key to Quaker's long-term plan. “Was oatmeal a product that could fulfill the changing needs of Quaker consumers,” management wondered, “or was it a relic of the past?”310 The FDA claim offered an answer to these concerns: oatmeal could be a thoroughly modern breakfast, shaped by a faith in nutrition science.

However, Quaker's results were initially inconclusive. The 1997 year “generated excitement” and featured strong growth in hot cereal.311 However, the claim's possibilities had not been used fully; many of Quaker's new value-added oat products had yet not been released. The following year disappointed, however, in part because conditions during the fiscal year 1998 were far from ideal. The rate of Quaker's sales declined growth declined 7% as the warmest winter in recent memory cooled down consumers’ appetites for hot cereal.312 Even as Quaker announced that “we are focused on driving innovation and growth” to leverage their claim, Kawalek was in CEO Robert Morrison's office lobbying for patience to do just that.313 The company's oldest product was still its most profitable, and Quaker's annual report was quick to note, “the brand continues to be fresh and relevant to consumers.”314 Kawalek was granted another year.

The oatmeal team worked full time to revamp the product line. Sales in 1999, with established marketing, new products, and better weather conditions, were record-breaking. Oatmeal revenues totaled $485 million, a 12.5% improvement. These numbers would have encouraged any investor, but Quaker insiders were ecstatic: the average sales growth over the 5 previous years had only been 1.6%.315 Quaker had satisfied its hopes for the claim.

Conclusions

The market for Quaker's oats continued to grow after the Pepsi acquisition. In 2010, hot cereal was the fastest growing segment of the cereal industry, with Quaker predictably claiming the largest share of the spoils. Mintel, a leading market research firm, reported that “growth in hot cereals has outpaced growth in the larger cold cereal segment [ …] as consumers ‘rediscovered’ hot cereal for its positive health benefits,” and credits the change to “the health properties associated with oatmeal along with the convenience factor of instant varieties.”316 Quaker offerings are prominent within Pepsi's top 10 best-selling brands worldwide and helped Pepsi generate over $1.9 billion in North American sales in 2008.317 Solid growth and extremely positive consumer perceptions indicate that Quaker rightly anticipated a claim's appeal to the public, and thus its value to the brand.

These results indicate several important developments in “health” food that continued into the 21st century. Faced with declining growth, Quaker recognized the trend of nutrition consciousness that was now bypassing cost awareness. However, management cleverly enhanced their products’ appeal by promoting synergies between health and other consumer priorities such as taste, convenience, and brand appeal. Even outspoken critics like Marion Nestle, who decry functional foods as “more about marketing than health,” recognize the effectiveness of Quaker's approach to give “[a food] already classified at the base of the [USDA's Food Pyramid] a bit more of an edge.”318

In keeping with the principles of market segmentation, the latest nutrition science was tailored to consumer lifestyles. Claims in this new age differentiated products not only through authenticity, but also through specificity to particular lifestyles; better living through biochemistry. By intelligently marketing products with scientifically worded claims, Quaker reflected consumer values for its own benefit. As much as producers like Quaker are maligned, and consumers painted as victims, they are still working within a framework of consumer choice; those products that reflect actual consumer lifestyles as well as shoppers’ aspirational health values sell.

In these new appeals, Quaker's health appeal became its brand. Indeed, in 2009, the group formally realigned its public identity to highlight its trademark grain: “Nutritious whole grains, wholesome goodness and great tasting variety. That's Quaker Oats.”319 This shift “helps us elevate and communicate the power of this surprising super grain—the oat—to meet the needs of the growing number of health conscious consumers,” said Mark Schiller, the current president of Quaker Oats. “We feel that Quaker has a great opportunity as a market leader in health and wellness to leverage our product portfolio under one powerful platform.”320

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Wild Oats: The Oat Bran Craze 1988 to 1990
  5. Gruel Intentions: The NLEA and Quaker's Health Claim, 1990 to 1997
  6. Cash Crop: Leveraging Scientific Evidence 1997 to 2010
  7. Conclusion
  8. Abbreviations 
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Written Sources
  12. Secondary Sources
  13. Works Consulted Primary Sources
  14. Secondary Sources
  15. Appendix

“[He] paused from his porridge and looked up, not with any new amazement, but simply with that quiet, habitual wonder with which we regard constant mysteries.”

- George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (1860)321

Shortly after its claim was approved in 1997, Quaker Oats prepared an unprecedented advertising campaign. That year, one hundred residents of the tiny town of Lafayette, Colorado were recruited to take the “Quaker Smart Heart Challenge,” eating a daily bowl of oatmeal. Ninety-eight lowered their cholesterol. In 1998, television and print advertisements told the stories:

In one TV spot, a police officer named Dan is pictured in front of a sign showing a speed limit of 30 mph, detailing how his cholesterol dropped by 29 points. Others show residents against backdrops of numbers—bingo signs, price markers—that equal the number of points their cholesterol fell.322

Before long, these ordinary people achieved an immortality usually reserved for star athletes and cartoon characters: they graced the front panels of cereal boxes. In this new era of FDA health claims, science was an officially certified promotional tool. Selling products in this new way would impact not only corporate bottom lines, but also everyday American lives.323 To properly leverage its claim, Quaker needed more than scientific evidence, regulatory approval, or even marketing dollars. The engagement and credence of consumers gave claims their value.

As the health claim trend accelerated, many observers sought to identify the structure inherent in this information flow. Initially, scientists identified (supposedly) health-promoting compounds, after which marketers translated science into persuasive claims. Regulators compared experimental and commercial perspectives, utilizing scientists’ studies as evidence in evaluating marketing claims. The public, while often portrayed as a passive recipient of knowledge and advertising, played a powerful role. As anthropologist Mary Douglas cautions, “theories of consumption which assume a puppet consumer, prey to the advertiser's wiles [ …] or lemming consumers rushing to disaster, are frivolous, even dangerous.”324 A growing consumer awareness of nutrition and resultant demand for health products motivated corporations to push claims and the FDA to evaluate (and allow) them. No party was powerless.

Information on product labels reflected and reinforced a change in the products inside, and thus a change in the nation's diet. The health publicity that Quaker received as a result of the 1997 claim opened opportunities for value-added products aimed at the specific health needs of key demographics. The cutting edge of commercial food became so-called “nutraceuticals” or “functional foods,” value-added products marketed from a health standpoint. With these foods, regulatory historian J. Worth Estes notes, the industry “seems to sidestep even the vague definition to which the FDA is tethered” rendering it “not possible to differentiate foods from drugs.”325 Quaker's familiar canister of plain oats, a product as close to nature as one might find on grocery store shelves, was only the first iteration of these new possibilities.

As Quaker expanded its own line with nutrient-enhanced oats and convenience foods, other corporations sought their own claims. Critics like Michael Pollan remember the FDA's decision as the triumph of nutrition marketing in America:

Nutritionism had become the official ideology of the Food and Drug Administration; for all practical purposes the government had redefined foods as nothing more than the sum of their recognized nutrients. Adulteration had been repositioned as food science [… and the change would allow] hundreds of “traditional foods that everyone knows” to begin their long retreat from the supermarket shelves and for our eating to become more “scientific.”[ …] Hyphens sprouted like dandelions in the supermarket aisles: low-fat, no-cholesterol, high-fiber.326

New foods, developed with potential claims in mind, included margarines enriched with plant sterols believed to eliminate cholesterol, soy-infused snack bars claiming breast cancer risk reduction, and other novel components. Sanctioned “health food” began with a simple grain, but the future lay in more sophisticated, and less familiar, formulations based on natural health-promoting components.327

From a purely promotional point of view, health claims have been highly effective. As economists Drichoutis, Lazaritis, and Nayga reported in 2005,

Health claims in the front of the package have been found to create favourable judgements about a product. For example, when a product features a health or nutrient content claim, consumers tend to view the product as healthier and are then more likely to purchase it, independent of their information search behavior.328

However, consumer advocates like the CSPI charged that the FDA's lenience in permitting industry petitioned health claims on front labels undercut its own quantitative back labels.

Manufacturers countered that front label health information was tantamount to public service. Grams and percentages were precise, but they were the language of specialists. Everyday shoppers, on the other hand, were making split-second decisions at the store; front labels that connected nutrients to health conditions would resonate without becoming confusing. Companies argued claims were “a good solution to an important issue and demonstrate what we’ve been saying all along: that the interests of consumer and the food industry are not at odds.”329

However, the simplicity of front label health claims that attempted to tie nutrients to health conditions reintroduced subjectivity—a disquieting notion for scientists, but far more comfortable for creative marketers. Nestle recognizes this tension, noting:

Like any other kind of science, nutrition science is more a matter of probabilities than of absolutes and is, therefore, subject to interpretation. Interpretation, in turn, depends on point of view. Government agencies invoke science for regulatory decisions. [ …] Advocates invoke science to question the safety of products perceived as undesirable. In contrast, scientists and food producers, who might benefit from promoting research results, nutritional benefits, or safety, tend to view other-than-scientific points of view as inherently irrational.330

Whatever one's position, the use of scientific evidence and wording has proved rhetorically essential. However, a recent phenomenon in popular nutrition discourse has been the emergence of eloquent, best-selling critics who question the undue influence and liberal scientific interpretations of the food industry. These skeptics manifest a range of responses to the reality of scientific uncertainty, however.

Michael Pollan, a Univ. of California-Berkeley professor, is among the best-known food industry critics. He decries “nutritionism,” the reductionist approach to food that he believes the food industry has exploited to profit from processed products marketed with health appeals. “The implicit message” of nutrient labels and health claims, Pollan claims, “was that foods, by comparison, were coarse, old-fashioned, and decidedly unscientific things—who could say what was in them really?” Claims, on the other hand, “gleamed with the promise of scientific certainty.”331 Pollan warns against the “hopelessly corrupt [ …]“pseudoscientific beauracratese” gracing product labels today, which are “official FDA euphemism[s] for ‘all but meaningless.’”332 He advises that consumers avoid all foods bearing claims on their labels, as “for the most part it is the products of food science [that bear claims] founded in incomplete and often erroneous science.”333 In denying the ability of corporate interests to utilize science, Pollan denies wholesale the power of experimental knowledge about food.

Marion Nestle, a professor of public health at New York Univ., brings a sociological perspective and explores the “politics” of the laws underlying nutrition claims. Her Food Politics (2005) extensively examines interactions between food manufacturers and regulators. Like Pollan, Nestle decries “misappropriated” science used to sell processed food, but she supports the USDA Food Pyramid and does not reject science entirely.334 Nestle doubts the ability of the food industry seek both health and profit. She believes that “unless we are willing to pay more for food, relinquish out-of-season produce, and rarely buy any thing that comes in a package or is advertised on television, we support the current food system every time we eat a meal.”335 While Nestle supports the role of science in developing nutritional policy, her primary critique of the current system is interactions between regulators and food companies, whether collusive or bullying. Like Pollan, she rejects the current interplay between these expert bodies as unworkable for public health.

As one of the most well-known academic nutritionists in the world today and a New York Times best-selling author, Walter Willett of the HSPH wields considerable influence with government, industry, and the popular media.336 Unlike other prominent voices in the popular discourse, Willet does not dismiss the role of the food industry in creating a healthier diet, but stresses the primacy of stringent scientific standards. “The fact that [food companies] are linking health and what people eat should help create awareness,” he observes, “if the claims are right.”337 To this end, Willett takes his message directly to food industry executives, telling them “an unregulated market is doing for human health what it has done for the US economy [in the market collapse of 2008].”338 Willet, however, prefers that academics work on the side of regulation and policy, and refuses to work with manufacturers on a paid basis, so as not to risk compromising scientific objectivity.

Some of America's most prominent popular and academic thinkers on diet and health each reject the opportunity to work more closely with industry. Yet, it is undeniable that the food industry's influence on public perceptions of diet is powerful; Nestle estimates that food marketing budgets for single products are often 10 to 50 times larger than USDA spending promoting the Food Pyramid.339 Levenstein goes so far as to credit the combination of the 2 approaches with the making of modern diet:

The right social and intellectual climate was not, in itself, enough. In order for new nutritional ideas to be adopted by mainstream Americans and for national food habits to change, it was necessary for the changes to be actively fostered by the two most powerful institutions in society, namely, government and giant food corporations. The former, working through formal and informal information systems, and the latter, with their influence over and advertising in the mass media, have been the only forces with the necessary resources to spread the message on a mass basis.340

There is no doubt that such spending can profoundly influence the public's priorities in food choice, but also feelings about what food is and can do for their lives.

However, it is also clear, as Willett notes, that food producers are not entirely forcing nutrition on the public but rather “responding to an interest” on the part of consumers, and marketing can have a positive effect by ensuring that better nutrition remains in the public eye.341 The food industry is responding to consumer interest in diet and health, even as it contributes to escalating anxieties and confusion. The currently fitful and ambiguous relationship between extensive health coverage in the popular media and industry advertising in the same publications illustrates this phenomenon.

A 2008 study conducted by the Dept. of Agriculture, however, perhaps revealed the most important trend that Quaker's claim had wrought. The authors found that consumers in 2005 to 2006 used food labels less frequently than they had in 1995 to 1996. Consultation of all nutritional indicators, from calories to fat to sodium and ingredient lists, declined between 3% and 11%.342 From a purely objective standpoint, the FDA's labeling efforts were wasted on a large percentage of the public. The results showed that, when shoppers did check back labels, they did not consult the fat, cholesterol, or sodium information that had been important a decade before.

Indeed, the only nutrient consumers checked with greater frequency in 2005 to 2006 was dietary fiber, by about 2 percentage points. The USDA report recognized the unique appeal of marketers and the popular media in raising public awareness: they believed

The increase in the use of fiber information (and, to a lesser extent, sugar) among label users [ …] is a notable exception. The role of adequate fiber in promoting good health has received much attention in the press recently. [ …] Perhaps similar exposure to information about other nutrients in food will lead to increased label use.343

The coordinated efforts of marketing and manufacturing professionals for Quaker's health-claim push combined public health and profit, with explicit regulatory sanction. This unprecedented campaign may have impacted consumer priorities to an extent that government and academic promotional efforts could not accomplish alone. Marketing and media use of scientific evidence helped “sell” the public on a particular perception of a healthy diet. More importantly, shoppers attempted to conform to this effectively marketed health message, as opposed to other nutrition messages that were met with acknowledgment, but indifference.

Though it has been difficult to quantitatively prove the effectiveness of claims, certainly Quaker is renowned for its nutritional savvy. Experts on health marketing cite Quaker's experience as the quintessential FDA claim success story. In Marketing Nutrition, Cornell professor Brian Wansink posits that “a higher level of understanding [about food and health] occurs” when health claims are present. “Because the consumer knows that a certain type of food contains nutritional properties and that these properties produce certain health benefits, the consumer is able to conclude that this food will lead to certain health benefits.”344 Awareness of the connections between diet and health motivate consumers to eat better.

Wansink thus believes the oat claim's success is proof that good marketing and good nutrition can exist in tandem. Five factors made it particularly effective. Quaker targeted a specific group (children with Dinosaur Eggs, seniors with Wilford Brimley), sought media attention (advertisements celebrated the claim in national newspapers and medical journals), copromoted the claim as a corporate partner to government agencies (supporting the USDA's focus on whole grains), focused on quantifiable or observable results (reducing cholesterol score points), and focused on a disease many consumers have a personal relationship with (heart disease, America's most common cause of death). He posits that that one “might call [efforts like Quaker's campaign] education, public service, or simply good parenting,” not mere marketing alone.345 In the future, Wansink concludes, those who want to sell products for profit but also for the public good would do well to emulate Quaker's approach to oats.

The fact that Quaker's claim seems to have been influential, however, by no means should imply that it is going unchallenged. In 2007, the CSPI scored a victory when it threatened to sue the company for “exaggerated” claims that portrayed oats as a “unique” health food that “actively finds” and removes cholesterol more than any other nutrition choice. “Oatmeal is a healthy food, but that's no excuse to give people the impression that it will miraculously remove cholesterol from your arteries or to otherwise exaggerate its benefits,” stated Steve Gardner, litigation director for CSPI.346 Quaker settled out of court, agreeing to redact the claim in favor of more circumspect language.

The company came under fire again in 2009, when the FDA questioned PepsiCo's participation in an industry-wide “Smart Choices” campaign. The program seeks to further essentialize front and back label scientific information into a green check mark, to “help shoppers easily identify smarter food and beverage choices.” Critics including Willett and Nestle contend its lenient criteria allow “horrible choices” like sugary granola bars to be advertised as health food.347 They see “Smart Choices” and similar efforts as attempts by the industry to utilize the trust the public now has in FDA-certified front labels, without true federal review. The USDA and FDA indicated the industry's actions were reviewed in the drafting of new, more stringent label standards which appeared in 2010.348[As of the time of publication, the Smart Choices campaign has been officially withdrawn by the sponsoring companies. The group is corresponding with the FDA about a more mutually acceptable program.] Clearly, label claims will remain controversial.

Perhaps the only certain lesson from health-claim labels is the tremendous market value of scientific knowledge, both in selling products and, in a larger sense, in building a competitive modern brand. Quaker Oats was by no means America's largest food company throughout its history, but rather established itself through innovation, quality, and consumer loyalty—“brands, trademarks, and goodwill” which its founders had trusted. The FDA claim Quaker acquired and leveraged into valuable brand property attracted those large multinational corporations that had always struggled to build brands fitting the public's new standards of nutrition.

The Quaker brand invoked nostalgia when it submitted its label claim petition in 1994; soon, it became clear that Quaker was a sign of things to come. By 2009, analysts tracking the $78 billion industry recognized that “there is a sound commercial logic behind [a] shift towards health and nutrition,” noting the frantic efforts of executives at Unilever, Kraft, and Nestle, PepsiCo's main worldwide competitors, to make themselves into nutritional powerhouses. Experts project that the market for nutraceuticals would continue to outpace traditional food, earning $128 billion by 2013.349 Quaker asked consumers “Why is this man smiling?” while it awaited its claim in 1996. The answer was clear by 2009; Peter Hutt, the FDA's former chief counsel, knew that Quaker smirked because “they’d just made a gazillion dollars.”350

To understand the role of science as a key to developing trust in the modern marketplace, this article has attempted to define precisely what a health claim “meant” to consumers, regulators, and corporations throughout the last 25 y. A key component to any history of science is that what we regard as “fact” is never neutral, nor is it stable. The scientific evidence brought to bear in the modern history of health claims has been a powerful rhetorical and promotional tool.

Beta-glucan was transformed from cattle feed to “superfood” in the late 1980s when scientifically demonstrated health properties lent it quantitative credibility and a connection to disease prevention. Yet without authoritative certification, scientific dissent deflated the craze. In the context of Quaker's 1994 appeal, a multitude of studies and quantitative data proved sufficient to convince an expert panel at the FDA, which approved the unprecedented claim. This certification expanded possibilities for Quaker's profitable product portfolio. Today, Quaker's health appeal makes it a key part of PepsiCo, and the model of long-term strategy for corporations attempting to provide for their customers’ needs and wants in the 21st century.

Historian Harvey Levenstein has speculated as to the modern rules that govern eating for mainstream Americans, and believes them to state

That taste is not a true guide to what should be eaten; that the important components of food cannot be seen or tasted, but are discernable only in scientific laboratories; and that experimental science has produced rules of nutrition which will prevent illness and encourage longevity.351

The scientific approach embodied in Levenstein's food rules, when applied to the humble oat, elevated it to a status as the iconic “health food.” However, without the control and certification of regulators, health appeal proved ephemeral. Quaker would require legal intervention in the NLEA of 1990, scientific approval in the FDA's 1997 decision, and business savvy thereafter to translate health appeal into a more effective way to do business. In the end, Quaker's claim paved the way not only to profit for a particular product or company, but to a new appreciation for the persuasive power of scientific evidence in modern society.

Oh, what those oats can do.

Abbreviations 

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Wild Oats: The Oat Bran Craze 1988 to 1990
  5. Gruel Intentions: The NLEA and Quaker's Health Claim, 1990 to 1997
  6. Cash Crop: Leveraging Scientific Evidence 1997 to 2010
  7. Conclusion
  8. Abbreviations 
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Written Sources
  12. Secondary Sources
  13. Works Consulted Primary Sources
  14. Secondary Sources
  15. Appendix

CSPI—Center for Science in the Public Interest

FDA—Food and Drug Administration

FTC—Federal Trade Commission

FDAMA—Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act of 1997

FD&C—Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938

HHS—Department of Health and Human Services

HSPH—Harvard School of Public Health

JAMA—Journal of the American Medical Association

NEJM—New England Journal of Medicine

NLEA—Nutrition Labeling Education Act of 1990

OAT—Quaker Oats (New York Stock Exchange)

PEP—PepsiCo [New York Stock Exchange]

QFNA—Quaker Foods North America (PepsiCo operating division)

QTG—Quaker Tropicana Gatorade (PepsiCo operating division)

RDA—recommended daily allowance (of a given nutrient)

RTE—ready-to-eat (Cereal)

SEC—Securities Exchange Commission

SSA—Significant Scientific Agreement (FDA standard for claim approval)

USDA—United States Department of Agriculture

USP—unique selling proposition (a product or brand's distinctive trait)

Acknowledgments

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Wild Oats: The Oat Bran Craze 1988 to 1990
  5. Gruel Intentions: The NLEA and Quaker's Health Claim, 1990 to 1997
  6. Cash Crop: Leveraging Scientific Evidence 1997 to 2010
  7. Conclusion
  8. Abbreviations 
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Written Sources
  12. Secondary Sources
  13. Works Consulted Primary Sources
  14. Secondary Sources
  15. Appendix

I am grateful to Drs. Steven Shapin and Paul Cruickshank for many hours of guidance through the first iteration of this article, and to Peter Barton Hutt, whose input and encouragement was absolutely essential in its publication. Other friends and colleagues whose comments and ideas I made use of include Laura Jaramillo and Gabriel Katsh. The errors and inconsistencies remain my own.

Endnotes
  • 1

    Qtd. in Arthur F. Marquette, Brands, Trademarks and Good Will: The Story of The Quaker Oats Company (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967) 55.

  • 2

    Quaker Oats, Advertisement, “Breakfast Cookies”, available from: http://www.quakeroats.com/products/oat-snacks/breakfast-cookies/oatmeal-chocolate-chip.aspx. Accessed Jan. 4, 2010.

  • 3

    In fact, nutrition labels had been mandated for a subsection of the food supply by a 1974 regulation; foods that advertised their nutritional content (such as calories, fat, or sodium) or which were vitamin-fortified were required to bear a nutrition label. However, a 1990 statute (the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act) made the requirement rigorously universal.

  • 4

    Brian Wansink and Matthew M. Cheney, Leveraging FDA Hhealth Cclaims,” Journal of Consumer Affairs, Winter 2005, Vol. 39.2, P. 386.

  • 5

    Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (Berkeley: California UP, 2003) 25.

  • 6

    The Unrepentant Chocolatier, The Economist Oct. 29, 2009.

  • 7

    This law had been the result of a legacy of poor quality and adulteration in consumer products, in particular worthless and often dangerous “patent medicines,” and given urgency with the publication of Upton Sinclair's meat-industry expose The Jungle earlier that year.

  • 8

    Rima Apple, Vitamania: Vitamins in American Culture (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1996) 85.

  • 9

    Id.

  • 10

    Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America (New York: Oxford UP, 1993) 200.

  • 11

    Qtd. in Thomas Hine, The Total Package: The Secret History and Hidden Meanings of Boxes, Bottles, Cans, and Other Persuasive Containers (New York: Back Bay, 1997) 209.

  • 12

    Juliann Sivulka, Soap Sex and Cigarettes: A Cultural History of American Advertising (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1998) 49.

  • 13

    Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (New York: Penguin, 2008) 27.

  • 14

    Apple Vitamania 179.

  • 15

    Jean Anthem Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, trans. M.F.K. Fisher (Berkeley, Calif.: Counterpoint, 2000) 3.

  • 16

    Sylvester Graham, Lectures on the Science of Human Life (London: Horsell and Shirrefs, 1853) 523.

  • 17

    Bonnie Liebman, Has the Oat Bran Bubble Burst? Nutrition Action Healthletter, Jan. 1, 1990.

  • 18

    Penny Moser, How I Made $812 In the Oat Bran Craze, Fortune, Oct. 9, 1989.

  • 19

    Harvey Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (Berkeley: California UP, 1988) 211.

  • 20

    James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.: Including a Journal of His Tour to the Hebrides, Vol. 3 (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1858) 11.

  • 21

    J. Worth Estes, “Food as Medicine” in The Cambridge World History of Food (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2000) 1534.

  • 22

    Michael Pollan, Rules to Eat By, New York Times Magazine, Oct. 6, 2009: MM 64.

  • 23

    For a more detailed discussion of ancient dietetics, see Innocenzo Mazzini, “Diet and Medicine in the Ancient World” in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean Louis Flandrin and others (New York: Columbia UP: 1999) 141–52.

  • 24

    Justus von Liebig, Familiar Letters on Chemistry and Its Relation to Commerce, Physiology and Agriculture, trans. John Gardner (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1843) 95.

  • 25

    Michael Pollan has isolated Liebig's discoveries as the birth of the new field of “nutritionism,” a pathological discipline that he believes has abstracted human relationships with food to an unhealthy degree; see Pollan's In Defense of Food.

  • 26

    Charles L. Harper and Bryan F. LeBeau, Food, Society, And Environment (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2003) 78.

  • 27

    Levenstein Revolution 46.

  • 28

    Id.

  • 29

    Margery Vaughn, the government's senior rationing nutritionist, advocated in the American Journal of Nursing that Americans start the day with a full cup of oatmeal, as the richest source of “vegetable protein” available at breakfast, a responsible way to do one's “war job” by efficiently using food for energy. (Margery Vaughn, Good Nnutrition Uunder Rrationing, American Journal of Nursing, Nov. 1943, Vol. 43.11, P. 1002–6.)

  • 30

    United States Department of Agriculture. National Wartime Nutrition Guide. NFC-4, 1943.

  • 31

    As a sign of complex diet guidelines to come, the “Basic Four” was actually a consolidation of a “Basic Seven” that the agency had originally introduced but which was pronounced too complex for the public.

  • 32

    The Fat of the Land, Time, Jan. 13, 1961:48–52.

  • 33

    United States Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, Dietary Goals for the United States, 95th Cong. 1st Sess. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1977).

  • 34

    Indeed, they even had a presidential seal of approval: Eisenhower was a well-known oatmeal devotee, eating it daily following a heart attack in 1955. (see Gary Taubes, Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health (New York: Knopf, 2007) 4.)

  • 35

    Levenstein Paradox 203. Levenstein credits fellow food historian Warren Belasco with the original coining of the term.

  • 36

    McGovern's report shocked the USDA into action, and since 1979 the agency has been federally mandated to produce new dietary guidelines every 5 y.

  • 37

    Levenstein Paradox 239.

  • 38

    Richard Ellsworth Day, Breakfast Table Autocrat: The Life Story of Henry Parsons Crowell (Chicago: Moody Press, 1946) 108.

  • 39

    Marquette Brands 7. The grandiloquence of an earlier style of history likely strikes most readers as humorous today.

  • 40

    In 1901, Quaker commissioned a silver-plated, engraved cereal spoon from the Oneida flatware company. Consumers could send away their box-top coupon to receive the spoon in the mail. (Walter D. Edmonds, Oneida: The First Hundred Years 1848–1948 (Oneida, N.Y.: Oneida Ltd., 1958) 44.

  • 41

    Cap’n Crunch is the product of one of the most bizarre collaborations in business history. In 1963, the cereal itself was specially developed to stay crunchy in milk by venerable consulting firm Arthur D. Little, while Jay Ward, animator of the classic Rocky and Bullwinkle series, created the character. (Bruce and Crawford Cerealizing 118.)

  • 42

    Id. at 24.

  • 43

    Schumacher would continue to be an active member of the group, however, engaging in multiple power struggles with Crowell over the years. See Day Autocrat 121–8.

  • 44

    “The abyss called commodity hell” is the industrial fear of lacking product differentiation. It is a relatively recent, though illustrative term for a longstanding problem, likely coined by General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt. (see Robert D. Hof, Building an Idea Factory, Business Week, Oct. 11, 2004.)

  • 45

    Marquette Brands 27; The previous owners had little relationship to the actual Quaker religious group, but rather chose the name while “searching the encyclopedia for a virtuous identity that would instill buyer confidence.” (Id. at 31.)

  • 46

    Sivulka Soap 49. Though Quaker moved to the familiar canister in 1915, one sees the same basic design today.

  • 47

    Id.

  • 48

    Id.

  • 49

    Hine Total Package 80.

  • 50

    Marquette Brands 7.

  • 51

    Levenstein Revolution 43.

  • 52

    Marquette Brands 110.

  • 53

    Rima Apple, “Patenting University Research: Harry Steenbock and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation,” Isis 80.3 (September 1989):384.

  • 54

    Day Autocrat 94.

  • 55

    Scott Bruce and Bill Crawford, Cerealizing America: The Unsweetened Story of American Breakfast Cereal (New York: Faber and Faber, 1995) 69. With over $12 million in sales by 1899, Quaker was America's best-selling breakfast during the early 20th century. Indeed, it was so popular that Oliver Wendell Holmes called the company “the autocrat of the breakfast table.”

  • 56

    Quaker made attempts to catch up with products like Cap’n Crunch and Chewy granola bars, but remained a minority player in these markets. Some say, of course, that such diversification was a deviation from the health of whole grains, adulterating with sugar and other ingredients. (see Bruce and Crawford Cerealizing for an entertaining look at earlier 20th century competition.)

  • 57

    Christie L. Nordhielm, Quaker Oats's Oatmeal Division (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern Univ. Kellogg School of Management, 2006) 6.

  • 58

    Marion Burros, Oat Bran—The Muffin and the Mania, New York Times, Oct. 26, 1988, C1.

  • 59

    William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, ed. Ann Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009) 117 (III.2.144).

  • 60

    United States Congress, United States Statutes at Large (59th Cong., Sess. I, Chp. 3915, 768–772). This broad definition was clarified to distinguish food from drug in the 1938 FD&C, which remains in effect today in a modified form.

  • 61

    George Kurian, A Historical Guide to the U.S. Government (New York: Oxford UP, 1998) 250.

  • 62

    Philip Hilts, Protecting America's Health: The FDA, Business, and One Hundred Years of Regulation (New York: Knopf, 2003) 262.

  • 63

    While dietary fiber is not considered a controversial topic in the popular discourse, it is worth noting that the research that supported a relationship between fiber and cancer has been repeatedly challenged in the medical literature, as many have criticized the observational studies as in fact showing the benefits of a diet low in refined carbohydrates and high in fruits and vegetables (both are correlated with high fiber intakes), not specifically of a fibrous diet. This underscores a continuing ambiguity about the actual biological mechanisms of any fiber, including oats’ beta-glucan. (see Taubes Good Calories 120)

  • 64

    Nestle Food Politics 242.

  • 65

    For a (politically slanted) report about the incident, see United States Cong., House, Committee on Government Operations, FDA's Continuing Failure to Prevent Deceptive Health Claims for Food, 101st Cong. 2nd Sess. (Nov. 14, 1990).

  • 66

    CSPI Asks for Food Industry Moratorium on Health Claims, Food Chemical News, Feb. 18, 1985, p. 3–5.

  • 67

    S.W. Colford, Food Marketers Let Health Claims Simmer, Advertising Age, Mar. 19, 1985, p. 12.

  • 68

    Hilts Protecting 262.

  • 69

    What hHas All-Bran Wrought? Consumer Reports, Oct. 1986, p. 638–9.

  • 70

    Interestingly, in retaining some of the numerical trappings of nutrition science—grams of fiber, cholesterol readings in milligrams/deciliter—these simplified accounts actually increased the mystique and power of the science they described. “Science has methods to offer to achieve longevity, and you can use them,” journalist Robert Kowalski wrote in 1987. “You can cut the risk of heart disease and other life-shortening diseases. That's a promise.” (Robert Kowalski, The 8-Week Cholesterol Cure: How to Lower Your Blood Cholesterol Up to 40 Percent Without Drugs or Deprivation (New York: Harper Row, 1987) xi–xii.)

  • 71

    A.S. Levy and R.C. Stokes, “Effects of a health promotion advertising campaign on sales of ready-to-eat cereals,” Public Health Reports 102 (1987). 403. Qtd. in Nestle 286.

  • 72

    A.S. Levy, B.M. Derby, and B.E. Roe, “Consumer impacts of health claims: an experimental study” (Washington, D.C.: Food and Drug Administration, 1997). Qtd. in Nestle 286.

  • 73

    Whereas the FDA was charged with regulation of food constituents and labels, advertising for food products fell under the jurisdiction of the FTC. The FTC is focused, like the FDA, on consumer protection, but also has the encouragement of competitive business practices in its mission. Thus, the FDA and FTC not only collected conflicting data, but also fell into their habitual regulatory philosophies when asked to interpret these complexities.

  • 74

    P.M. Ippolito and A.D. Mathios, Health Claims in Advertising and Labeling: A Study of the Cereal Market (Washington, D.C.: Federal Trade Commission, 1989). Qtd. in Nestle 288.

  • 75

    Moser, “$812.”

  • 76

    Id. at 4.

  • 77

    Id. at 48–50.

  • 78

    Id. at 2.

  • 79

    Id. at 3.

  • 80

    Edwin McDowell, Top Selling Books of 1988: Spy Novel and Physics, New York Times, Feb. 2, 1989, C24.

  • 81

    Nestle Food Politics 323.

  • 82

    Bruce Kinosian and John Eisenberg, Cutting into Ccholesterol: Ccost-Eeffective Aalternatives for Ttreating Hhypercholesterolemia, Journal of the American Medical Association, Apr. 15, 1988, Vol. 259(15). P. 2249–54.

  • 83

    The first statin drugs had only recently been approved for sale (1987), and so were not included in the analysis. However, the authors estimated that oat bran would be equally effective as the new drugs while saving around $11000.

  • 84

    Marian Burros, De Gustibus: ‘Oat Bran’ May Be on the Label, but How Much Is in the Box? New York Times, Mar. 22, 1989, C4.

  • 85

    Penny Moser, “How I Made $812 In the Oat Bran Craze,” Fortune, Oct. 9, 1989.

  • 86

    Id.

  • 87

    Nestle Food Politics 323.

  • 88

    Julie Liesse Erickson and Judann Dagnoli, Healthy Food Pace Quickens, Leaving Regulators Behind, Advertising Age, Sep. 25, 1989, p. 3.

  • 89

    N.R. Kleinfield, Catching the Anti-Cholesterol Fever, New York Times, Apr. 16, 1989, p. 31.

  • 90

    Marquette Brands 31.

  • 91

    Qtd. in Kleinfield “Fever” 31.

  • 92

    Nestle Food Politics 323.

  • 93

    Eben Shapiro, New Products Clog Food Stores, New York Times, May 29, 1990, D1.

  • 94

    Erickson and Dagnoli, “Healthy Food” 3.

  • 95

    The 100 Leading National Advertisers, Advertising Age, Sept. 26, 1990, p. 72.

  • 96

    Erickson and Dagnoli “Healthy Food” 3.

  • 97

    Profile: Polly Kawalek, Chicago-Booth Magazine, Spring 2000.

  • 98

    Moser “$812.”

  • 99

    Mary Shelman, Personal interview, Jan. 4, 2010.

  • 100

    Although nutritional labels were not mandated for all foods in the late 1980s, the oat bran craze demonstrated the inadequacy of a purely nutrient-based label. Oat bran sold so well because it claimed to be better than other forms of fiber in heart disease prevention; a label that merely labeled all fiber in the same way would not answer consumers’ concerns. Bran doughnuts were probably not the best source, of course. One might need to eat over one hundred bran cookies, which commonly contained half a gram of bran each, to get the AMA's recommended daily dose.

  • 101

    Qtd. in Hilts Protecting 262.

  • 102

    E.M. Forster, Howards End (London: Edward Arnold, 1910). 296

  • 103

    J.F. Swain, I.L. Rouse, C.B. Curley, and F.M. Sacks, Comparison of the effects of oat bran and low-fiber wheat on serum lipoprotein levels and blood pressure, New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 18, 1990, Vol. 322:3, P. 147–52. Twenty subjects were fed 90 g of either oat bran or refined white flour daily for 6 wk. In the end, the authors found no significant cholesterol-lowering benefits for the fibrously fed subjects.

  • 104

    Liebman “Bran Bubble.”

  • 105

    Julie Liesse and Judann Dagnoli, America's Oat Bran Craze on the Wane; Controversial Research Fuels Product Fallout, Advertising Age, Jan. 22, 1990, p. 1.

  • 106

    Dullea “What To Eat?” 172.

  • 107

    R.A. Roubenoff & R. Roubenoff, “Letter to the Eeditor, Ooat Bbran and serum cholesterol, New England Journal of Medicine, 1990, Vol. 320,P. 1746–7. The study was conducted on a small population of dieticians, who were already engaged in a heart-healthy lifestyle.

  • 108

    J. Burris, Letter to the editor: oat bran and serum cholesterol, New England Journal of Medicine, 1990, Vol. 320, P.1748.

  • 109

    Moser, “$812.”

  • 110

    “Profile: Polly Kawalek.”

  • 111

    Qtd. in Bijal Trivedi, The good, the fad, and the unhealthy, New Scientist, Sep. 23, 2006, Vol. 191.2570, P. 42–9.

  • 112

    Qtd. in Dullea “What to Eat?”

  • 113

    Liebman insisted that expert opinion had to be the only standard, but that such expertise could not be held to timelines: “[I]f you’re beginning to feel like a volleyball, bouncing back and forth with each new headline about cholesterol, don't despair. Researchers sometimes take years to get to the final answer. Once you accept that, it's easier to take the next bounce of the ball.” This sort of relativism, obviously, was hard for many consumers to swallow. (Liebman, “Bran Bubble”)

  • 114

    Dowd, “No Perrier?”“It's Reagan's fault,” Mr. Pizer added. “I don't know how, but it is.”

  • 115

    Julie Liesse Erickson, Wary Consumers Want More Health Ad Info, Advertising Age, Dec. 4, 1989, p. 12.

  • 116

    Nestle Food Politics 327. The suit was originally filed in Texas, but when the federal government took up the case, “Big G” abandoned the claim and 50 tons of Benefit, which aided the gastrointestinal regularity of livestock in South Dakota (Bruce and Crawford Cerealizing 232).

  • 117

    “Snap, Crackle, Stop.”

  • 118

    Erickson and Dagnoli “Healthy Food” 3.

  • 119

    Luther McKinney, qtd. in Erickson and Dagnoli “Healthy Food” 3.

  • 120

    Apple Vitamania 143.

  • 121

    Perhaps the clearest manifestation of the oat-bran-as-archetype phenomenon in the subsequent 20 y has been the low-carbohydrate diet craze of the early 2000s. The “low-carb” concept was nothing new. Indeed, the first modern weight-loss diet, William Banting's Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public (1863) had been based around avoiding bread sugary puddings. Dr. Robert Atkins had made bestseller lists intermittently since the 1970s with his antiestablishment “Diet Revolution.” In the 2000s, however, low-carb went mainstream. It should not surprise that the craze closely resembled oat bran. It had its “Kowalski” (best-selling popular science author Gary Taubes), contradicting studies in JAMA and the New England Journal, and high-profile media attention in national sources such as the New York Times and Time. It was also highly profitable: the craze was estimated to sell $10 billion in products in 2003, with Atkins Nutritionals earning $200 million that year, before being acquired by a Goldman Sachs-led private equity group. The eventual crash, unsurprisingly, was similarly disastrous for those corporations on the bandwagon.

  • 122

    Liebman, “Bran Bubble.”

  • 123

    Foodbusters, New York Times, Feb. 2, 1990, A30.

  • 124

    Pollan Defense 37.

  • 125

    Apple Vitamania 53.

  • 126

    Bruce and Crawford Cerealizing 234.

  • 127

    “Foodbusters” A30.

  • 128

    Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote de la Mancha (New York: D. Appleton, 1899) 96.

  • 129

    Kleinfield “Anti-Cholesterol” 31.

  • 130

    Qtd. in Bruce and Crawford Cerealizing 236.

  • 131

    Nestle Food Politics 249.

  • 132

    United States, Cong., House, HR 3562, To Amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to Prescribe Nutrition Labeling for Foods, and for Other Purposes, 101st Cong. 2nd Sess. (Washington: GPO, 1990): 3(a). See also 21 USC Sec. 343 (1938) for the original FD&C Act.

  • 133

    “Foodbusters” A30.

  • 134

    Hilts Protecting 261.

  • 135

    Philip Hilts, F.D.A. Is Preparing New Food Rules to Curb Label Claims, New York Times, Oct. 30, 1989, Section A.

  • 136

    Nestle Food Politics 242.

  • 137

    Qtd. in Philip Hilts, US Plans to make sweeping changes in labels on food, New York Times, Mar. 8, 1990, A1.

  • 138

    Qtd. in Hilts Protecting 260. Emphasis original.

  • 139

    F.D.A. Faulted for Shift On Food Label Rules, New York Times, Apr. 13, 1988, C4.

  • 140

    A less-exhaustive bill, HR3028, actually reached the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in August 1989, but was incorporated into the later, more comprehensive bill.

  • 141

    Qtd. in Nestle Food Politics 248.

  • 142

    Honest food labels? Fat Chance, New York Times, Nov. 18, 1992, A26. The Times flatly declared, “Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan [a Bush political appointee] put the interests of the meat industry ahead of the health of Americans.”

  • 143

    Hilts Protecting 215.

  • 144

    A House subcommittee found that OMB interfered to such a degree in the proposal process that the FDA's regulatory powers had been “neuter[ed.]” (Philip Hilts, Panel says White House Delayed Effort to Curb Food Health Claims, New York Times, Nov. 15, 1990, B14.)

  • 145

    Hilts Protecting 270.

  • 146

    Id.

  • 147

    Although the NLEA was passed in 1990, it was acknowledged that the FDA would require time to develop its policies. The original legislation gave the agency until November 8, 1992 to establish its final revised rules [HR 3562: 2(a)(4)(B)(i).] This deadline was given urgency by the stipulation that if the deadline was not met, the rules as laid out in the law would go into effect without change (though in practice this was not enforced). After internal FDA politics and the President's decision were finalized, regulations were published on January 6, 1993. (Nestle Food Politics 255.)

  • 148

    Bruce and Crawford Cerealizing 238.

  • 149

    Peter Barton Hutt, “A Brief History of FDA Regulation Relating to the Nutrient Content of Food” in ed. Ralph Shapiro, Nutrition Labeling Handbook (New York: Marcel Dekker, 1995) 11.

  • 150

    The standard of “Significant Scientific Agreement” (SSA) was identified as “. standard of “the (1) totality of (2) published evidence, from (3) well-designed studies, (4) conducted in a manner consistent with standard methods, about which (5) significant scientific agreement must exist (6) among qualified experts.” (Nestle Food Politics 248.)

  • 151

    Hutt “A Brief History” 11.

  • 152

    United States, Dept. of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, “Food Labeling: Health Claims; Soluble Fiber From Whole Oats and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease; Final Rule” Federal Register 62 (Jan. 23, 1997):3584.

  • 153

    George Stigler, The Eeconomics of IInformation, The Journal of Political Economy, 1961, Vol. 69.3.

  • 154

    Drichoutis, Lazaridis and Nayga “Consumer's Use” 1.

  • 155

    J.A. Caswell and E.M. Mojduszka, Using Iinformational Llabeling to Iinfluence the Mmarket for quality in Ffood Pproducts, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 1996, Vol. 78.5, P. 1248–53.

  • 156

    Gary A. Zarkin and Donald W. Anderson, Consumer and producer responses to nutrition label changes, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 1992, Vol. 74.5, P. 1205.

  • 157

    Drichoutis, Lazaridis and Nayga “Consumers’ Use” 9.

  • 158

    Hine Total Package 175. In fact, the costs were minimized due to the foreknowledge of claims approaching, giving manufacturers a chance to work the changes into their natural package design “life cycle.”

  • 159

    Philip Hilts, In Reversal, White House Backs Curbs on Health Claims for Food, New York Times, Feb. 9, 1990.

  • 160

    Julie Liesse and Steven W. Colford, Marketers Like New Label Law, Advertising Age, Oct. 29, 1990, p. 67.

  • 161

    Kathleen Berry, All About Breakfast Cereal; The Snap Has Turned to Slog, New York Times, Nov. 18,1990.

  • 162

    The NLEA not end controversy, however. Rather, a reinvigorated enforcement of the law would foment legal battles and legislative maneuvers. The 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Safety Act (DSHEA) created the less-regulated “supplement” category, which enabled manufacturers to make unapproved claims with a disclaimer The 1997 FDA Modernization Act (FDAMA) shortened the FDA's deliberation period to only 120 d, and required the agency to approve health claims based on consensus statements published by the U.S. government or the Natl. Academy of Sciences. Finally, the 1999 Supreme Court ruling in Pearson compare with Shalala established that the “significant scientific agreement” requirement stifled free speech by requiring more agreement than is typical except for the most conservative claims. The cumulative effect of these decisions prevented the most of blatant untruths but weakened FDA regulatory capacity.

  • 163

    Hilts Protecting 271.

  • 164

    Id. at 270.

  • 165

    John Harvey Kellogg, The Itinerary of A Breakfast: A Popular Account of the Travels of a Breakfast through the Food Tube and of the Ten Gates and Several Stations through which it Passes, also of the Obstacles which It Sometimes Meets (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1920) 83.

  • 166

    United States. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Food and Drug Administration. “Food Labeling; General Requirements for Health Claims for Food.” Federal Register 58 (Jan. 6, 1993):2478.

  • 167

    Id. at 2522–24.

  • 168

    Id. at 2478–853.

  • 169

    Nestle Food Politics 257. Congress originally submitted ten claims; the FDA accepted eight.

  • 170

    Federal Register 58 (1993):2552.

  • 171

    It was these whole grains that were to pave the “Road to Wellville” promoted by John Harvey Kellogg and C.W. Post, the early kings of health claims at the turn of the 20th century.

  • 172

    Federal Register 58 (1993):2572.

  • 173

    Id. at 2562.

  • 174

    Cynthia M. Rispin, Joseph M. Keenan, David R. Jacobs, and others, Oat products and lipid lowering: a meta-analysis, Journal of the American Medical Association, June 24, 1992, Vol. 267.24, P. 3317–27. While 5% may not appear to be a significant reduction, the reduction in risk of heart attack can be as much as 10%, depending upon one's prior cholesterol score.

  • 175

    Apple Vitamania 33.

  • 176

    United States, Dept. of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, “Food Labeling: Health Claims; Soluble Fiber From Whole Oats and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease; Proposed Rule” Federal Register 61 (Jan. 4, 1996):298.

  • 177

    Nestle Food Politics 322.

  • 178

    The specific mechanism underlying beta-glucan's anticholesterol properties remains uncertain. However, the most popular theory holds that the fiber absorbs water in the intestines (hence “soluble” fiber), creating a slush that removes some of the cholesterol in food, as well as digestive bile made from cholesterol, as it moves through the digestive tract. More bile must be created, but the body must draw cholesterol from the blood, as beta-glucan has also trapped cholesterol from food.

  • 179

    Federal Register 61 (1996):308.

  • 180

    Id.

  • 181

    Id. at 298.

  • 182

    Id. at 303. Some used only subjects with high cholesterol and no control group, or did not record fiber grams, providing no dosage relationship.

  • 183

    Federal Register 62 (1997):3584.

  • 184

    Beta-glucan is a relatively rare type of fiber; oats represent the dominant source in the average American's diet. However, barley is another grain rich in the fiber, and in 2006 barley manufacturers succeeded in extending the claim to their products. The willingness of such a small trade group to engage in the lengthy and expensive FDA process shows a certified claim's appeal.

  • 185

    These limitations severely hampered Quaker's ability to promote processed products such as breakfast bars and cookies using the claim; the strategy thus far has thus been to establish less-processed oats’ healthfulness and to count on translated associations and more vague invocations of health (without the FDA claim) in advertising such products.

  • 186

    Qtd. in Nestle Food Politics 249.

  • 187

    Federal Register 61 (1996):306.

  • 188

    William Shakespeare, The Tempest ed. David Lindley (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002) 129 (II.1.11).

  • 189

    David Stout, FDA Moves Back Oatmeal and a Test for Drug Use, New York Times, Jan. 22, 1997, A10.

  • 190

    Leah Haran, Oat Brands Set to Reheat Cereal Sales, Advertising Age, Jan. 29, 1996, p. 12.

  • 191

    Id.

  • 192

    Federal Register 62 (1997):3584.

  • 193

    Id. at 3585.

  • 194

    Id. at 3590.

  • 195

    Stout “FDA Moves” A10.

  • 196

    Michael Pollan, Our National Eating Disorder, New York Times Magazine, Oct. 17, 2004, MM64.

  • 197

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 7.

  • 198

    Id. at 10.

  • 199

    Sivulka Soap 276.

  • 200

    Ronald D. Michman & Edward M. Mazze, The Food Industry Wars: Marketing Triumphs and Blunders (Westport, Conn.: Quorum, 1998) 120.

  • 201

    Judann Pollack, Nutraceuticals Take Healthy Food to a New Level, Advertising Age, Dec. 2, 1996, p. 1, 54.

  • 202

    Steve Galbraith, ed., Bernstein Research: Quaker Oats Company (New York: Bernstein Global Wealth Management, 1993) 38.

  • 203

    Quaker Oats Company, Annual Report 1997 (Chicago: Quaker Oats Company, 1998).

  • 204

    Quaker Oats Annual Report (1997) 18.

  • 205

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 11.

  • 206

    Quaker Oats Annual Report (1997) 60.

  • 207

    Quaker Oats, Advertisement, Why is this Man Smiling? New York Times, Jan. 14, 1996, A40.

  • 208

    Quaker Oats, Advertisement, Now He has Another Reason to Smile! New York Times, Jan. 23, 1997, A15.

  • 209

    In 1996, the FDA approved a claim for sugar alcohols on behalf of the National Chewing Gum Manufacturers’ association, certifying that these sugar replacements prevented cavities when replacing sugared gum. The insistence on priority from Quaker, however, is indicative of its valuation of the claim.

  • 210

    Nestle Food Politics 324.

  • 211

    Quaker advertisement (1896), qtd. in Magazine Art: Vintage Magazine Cover and Advertising Art from the Golden Age of American Illustration (Online: Jan. 10, 2010).

  • 212

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 11.

  • 213

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 7. Consumers paid, on average, $3.48 per box of Quaker oats and $2.23 per box of generic oats.

  • 214

    Oatmeal has one of the highest value-added rates of an agricultural product, second only to corn syrup, with only 7% of the value of oats sold in store being “farm value” (the price paid to the farmer), As much as 73% of consumers’ price goes to pay for production, distribution, and promotion. (Nestle Food Politics 17.)

  • 215

    Donald Keough, “The Importance of Brand Power,” in Brand Power, ed. Paul Stobart (New York: New York UP, 1994) 19.

  • 216

    Nestle Food Politics 257.

  • 217

    William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, ed. John Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009) 42 (III.1.60).

  • 218

    Michman and Mazze Wars xii.

  • 219

    Quaker Oats Company, Annual Report 1999 (Chicago: Quaker Oats Company, 2000) 14.

  • 220

    Qtd. in Rekha Balu, Business Brief: New CEO Views Quaker Oats As Primarily a Beverage Concern, The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 24, 1998, p. 1.

  • 221

    This was hyperbole: beverages accounted for 38% of sales in that year, and dry food remained the dollar sales-leader throughout the company's independent history. (Quaker Oats Company, Annual Report 1997 [Chicago: Quaker Oats Company, 1998] 20.)

  • 222

    Galbraith Bernstein 10.

  • 223

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 2.

  • 224

    Michman and Mazze Wars 112.

  • 225

    Id. at 120.

  • 226

    Galbraith Bernstein 38.

  • 227

    Id. at 10.

  • 228

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 6.

  • 229

    Quaker Oats Annual Report (1993) 21.

  • 230

    Michman and Mazze Wars 121.

  • 231

    Nestle Food Politics 17–19.

  • 232

    Levenstein believes these marketing imperatives have stayed relatively constant throughout time; he believes cereal manufacturers at the turn of the 20th century focused on convenience, purity, and brand appeal (though he omits taste). Health was an appeal at this time, as well; however, Levenstein believes these vague, unregulated claims were merely “slogans that implied everything but promised nothing.” (Revolution 34).

  • 233

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 6–8.

  • 234

    Galbraith Bernstein 14.

  • 235

    Id. at 37.

  • 236

    Id. at 10.

  • 237

    Id. at 37.

  • 238

    Id. at 14.

  • 239

    Quaker Oats Annual Report (1993) 22.

  • 240

    Fully 21% of revenues went directly back to promotions, more than double the percentage outlay of Kellogg, the cereal market leader. (Galbraith Bernstein 13.)

  • 241

    James B. Twitchell, Adcult USA (New York: Columbia UP, 1996) 253.

  • 242

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 6.

  • 243

    Galbraith Bernstein 15.

  • 244

    A number of options for improving hot cereal profitability were pursued by Quaker, in addition to the health claim petition. Bernstein Research's 1993 report on Quaker catalogues these attempts, which included more technology-driven inventory management, new value-priced RTE cereal lines in bags. New product lines attempted before the health claim largely foundered, however, suggesting a synergy between the claim and successful product targeting.

  • 245

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 7.

  • 246

    Galbraith Bernstein 10. Quaker correctly anticipated that it would be better able to take advantage of health appeal than generic products, which competed only through low price; some (such as Wal-Mart's “Great Value” brand) have not added the claim to their labels over a decade later.

  • 247

    Michman and Mazze Wars 130.

  • 248

    John Dreighton, How Snapple Got Its Juice Back, Harvard Business Review, Jan. 1, 2002.

  • 249

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 3.

  • 250

    Jennifer Waters, “What New CEO Must do to Craft Quaker's Revival,” Crain's Chicago Business, Oct. 27, 1997.

  • 251

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 3.

  • 252

    William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, ed. Russ McDonald (New York: Penguin, 2000) 62 (IV.1.32).

  • 253

    Wansink and Cheney 394.

  • 254

    Brand extension is a routine strategy for other reasons as well: it diversifies to mitigate risk that one poorly received product will impact the bottom line, and pushes competitors off supermarket shelf space. (Michman and Mazze Wars 130.)

  • 255

    Miller and Muir 32.

  • 256

    Nestle Food Politics 17.

  • 257

    Michman and Mazze Wars 123.

  • 258

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 7.

  • 259

    Sonia Reyes, What Will Become of the Box? Brand Week, Jan. 27, 2003.

  • 260

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 7.

  • 261

    Quaker Oats, Advertisement, “Quaker Breakfast Cookies” (Online, Jan. 4, 2010).

  • 262

    Marquette Brands 265.

  • 263

    Jean Noel Kapferer, Strategic Brand Management (New York: Free Press, 1992) 273.

  • 264

    Paul Stobart, “Preface” Brand Power, ed. Paul Stobart (New York: New York UP, 1994) xv.

  • 265

    Quaker Oats, Advertisement “About Quaker – Quaker History” (Online: Jan. 4, 2010).

  • 266

    Camillo Pagano, “The Management of Global Brands,” Brand Power, ed. Paul Stobart (New York: New York UP, 1994) 58.

  • 267

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 2.

  • 268

    Stephanie Thompson, New Quaker Snacks Aim to Capitalize on Wholesome Image, Advertising Age, Oct. 7, 2002, p. 6.

  • 269

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 1.

  • 270

    Id. at 9.

  • 271

    Howard V. Hayghe, “Developments in Women's Labor Force Participation,” Monthly Labor Review 120.9 (September 1997):41–6.

  • 272

    Whether the free time gained by processed food outweighed the disadvantages of less-nutritious food is a matter of contentious debate. (see Michael Pollan, Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch, New York Times, Aug. 2, 2009, MM26.)

  • 273

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 3.

  • 274

    The company had actually introduced one of the first “convenience” foods with its “Quick Oats” in 1921, which were specially steamed and flattened, reducing cooking time from twenty to five minutes. Further milling reduced cooking time to the familiar 1-min “instant” version introduced in 1966. (see Marquette Brands 126, 259).

  • 275

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 7.

  • 276

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 6.

  • 277

    Although Quaker's “Chewy” granola bars were an iconic brand that could be eaten for breakfast, granola had strayed from its 1960s counterculture associations, and by the 1990s many consumers considered it a candy-like product. Quaker executives specifically stated that they did not want oat fiber to turn into “another granola” trend. (see Belasco Appetite 224.)

  • 278

    Quaker Oats, Advertisement, Quaker Oatmeal to Go, available from: http://www.quakeroats.com/products/oat-snacks/oatmeal-to-go-bars/brown-sugar-and-cinnamon.aspx. Accessed Feb. 4, 2010.

  • 279

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 7.

  • 280

    Qtd. in Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 7.

  • 281

    Joseph Turow, Breaking Up America: Advertisers and the New Media World (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1997) 4.

  • 282

    Michman and Mazze Wars 129. The authors asserted the unique value of market segmentation for the health-conscious market, but noted that price pressure would be important in years to come. (However, an insistence on price was something of a fringe position among cereal-marketing experts at this time.)

  • 283

    Quaker had actually created an ambitious market-segmentation campaign in 1990; Quaker Direct attempted to target 18 million consumers with personalized coupons. When the expensive campaign failed quickly, Quaker had shied away from complex marketing techniques but was attempting segmentation again seven years later. (Turow Adcult 151.)

  • 284

    Qtd. in Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 8.

  • 285

    John L. Stanton and Richard J. George, 21 Trends in Food Marketing for the 21st Century (Atlantic City, N.J.: Raphel, 1997) 68.

  • 286

    Qtd. in Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 9.

  • 287

    Sea Adventures tested well in focus groups, but was quickly pulled from the market following the discovery the blue dye in the oatmeal permanently stained children's clothes. (Somewhere, Michael Pollan was apoplectic.) Dinosaur Eggs, on the other hand, continue to be phenomenally successful.

  • 288

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 7.

  • 289

    Quaker Oats, Advertisement, Quaker Instant Oatmeal, available from: http://www.quakeroats.com/products/oatmeal/instant-oatmeal/original.aspx. Accessed Jan. 4, 2010.

  • 290

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 10. Quaker here was shrewdly taking advantage of the cutting edge of health claims; soy protein was approved for an FDA health claim in 1999, and its positive effects on postmenopausal estrogen levels were becoming widely known.

  • 291

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 10.

  • 292

    Marquette Brands 272.

  • 293

    David Leonhart, Stirring Things Up at Quaker Oats, Business Week, Mar. 30, 1998.

  • 294

    Jennifer Waters, What New CEO Must do to Craft Quaker's Revival, Crain's Chicago Business, Oct. 27, 1997.

  • 295

    Quaker Oats, Annual Report 1999 (Chicago: Quaker Oats Company, 2000) 9.

  • 296

    PepsiCo Inc., Annual Report 2000 (Purchase, N.Y.: PepsiCo, 2001) 2.

  • 297

    Matthew Herper and Betsy Schiffman, “Pepsi Bought Quaker. Now What?” Forbes, Aug. 2, 2001.

  • 298

    Andrew Ross Sorkin & Greg Winter, PepsiCo Said to Acquire Quaker Oats for $13.4 Billion in Stock, New York Times, Dec. 4, 2000, A23.

  • 299

    Herper and Schiffman “Now What?”

  • 300

    Id.

  • 301

    Id.

  • 302

    PepsiCo, “Form 10-K Fiscal Year 2009” (Edgar Search). Interestingly, in 2005 the Pepsi company reorganized its structure to include Quaker as the leader of its health brands group, known as Quaker Tropicana Gatorade (QTG), with the belief that the importance of these brands should be protected with management and marketing synergies.

  • 303

    “Quaker Merger Boosts PepsiCo Profits,” Nutraingredients USA, Feb. 11, 2003.

  • 304

    Internationally, Pepsi stands behind only Nestlè (Switzerland) and Unilever (United Kingdom); its health focus appears to have spurred both to commit publicly to marketing nutrition more extensively.

  • 305

    Piribo Group “PepsiCo: The World's Biggest Functional-Food Company. 10 Case Studies In Its Strategies In Sports Drinks, Fruit Drink, Snack Innovation And Cereals” (London: New Nutrition Business, 2007).

  • 306

    Id.

  • 307

    William Shakespeare, Henry IV Part I, ed. David Bevington (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998). 160 (II.1.10).

  • 308

    Galbraith Bernstein 10.

  • 309

    Carliss Y. Baldwin and Leonid Soudakov, “PepsiCo's Bid for Quaker Oats” (Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 2008):7.

  • 310

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 1.

  • 311

    Quaker Oats Annual Report (1997) 18.

  • 312

    Quaker Oats, Annual Report 1997 (Chicago: Quaker Oats Company, 1998) 19.

  • 313

    Nordhielm Oatmeal Division 1.

  • 314

    Quaker Oats, Annual Report 1998 (Chicago: Quaker Oats Company, 1999) 18.

  • 315

    Baldwin and Soudakov “PepsiCo's Bid” 7.

  • 316

    Mintel Group, “Report: Breakfast Cereal (US) September 2009: Hot Cereal” (Online: Feb. 4, 2010).

  • 317

    PepsiCo, PepsiCo Annual Report (Purchase, N.Y.: PepsiCo, Inc., 2008):59.

  • 318

    Nestle Food Politics 336.

  • 319

    Quaker Oats, Advertisement, “Quaker Products” (Online: Jan. 4, 2010).

  • 320

    “Quaker Oats announces Re-Positioning of Business to Focus on Power of the Whole Grain Oat,” (Online: Feb. 4, 2010).

  • 321

    George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998) 123.

  • 322

    Judann Pollack, Ordinary People Star in New Fall Quaker Effort: Ads Document Cholesterol Drop Among Residents of Colo. Town, Advertising Age, Aug. 17, 1998, p. 42.

  • 323

    Lafayette has hosted an annual Oatmeal Festival sponsored by Quaker every year since 1997, featuring the world's largest oatmeal breakfast (200 gallons of oatmeal and 140 toppings), a health fair with free cholesterol screenings, a “Quicker Quaker” 5k run and the “Smart Heart Start:” free oatmeal and cholesterol screenings for 30 d in exchange for a pledge to eat Quaker every morning to test Quaker's 5-point cholesterol reduction promise.

  • 324

    Mary Douglas, The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (London: Routledge, 2006) 62.

  • 325

    J. Worth Estes, “Food as Medicine” in The Cambridge World History of Food (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2000):1534.

  • 326

    Pollan Defense: 36–7. This article has attempted to show that Pollan's rhetoric is too simple regarding the FDA's regulatory attitude. Yet, his frustration stem from an objective phenomenon, proliferation of claims.

  • 327

    Even FDA-approved claims affirming the value of beta-glucan have become more commercialized in the past decade. Joining Quaker's claim are officially sanctioned trademark products such as Betafiber® and Oatrim®, extracts which may be used to gain an oat label claim.

  • 328

    Drichoutis, Lazardis, and Nayga “Consumers’ Use” 2.

  • 329

    Qtd. in Marketers Like New Label Law, Advertising Age, Oct. 29, 1990, p. 67.

  • 330

    Nestle Food Politics 28.

  • 331

    Pollan Defense 19–20.

  • 332

    Id. at 156–7.

  • 333

    Id. at 154.

  • 334

    Nestle Food Politics 140. Her criticism ranges from sober assessments of industry spending on advertising and lobbying to somewhat spurious attempts to imply misconduct For example, a Quaker executive is accused of bribing the Secretary of Agriculture—with $90 in tickets to football games.

  • 335

    Id. at 374.

  • 336

    Willett has proven the power of scientific advocacy in campaigning against harmful trans fats. Less than 3 y after he first warned the nation of the dangerous artificial fat, major manufacturers voluntarily removed the ingredient ahead of regional bans in major areas such as California and New York City.

  • 337

    Walter Willett, Personal interview, Jan. 28, 2010.

  • 338

    Louisa Kasdon, Goodbye Trans Fats; Now It's Salt's Turn: Top Nutritionist Looks to Change How America Eats, Boston Globe, Mar. 4, 2009.

  • 339

    Nestle Food Politics 22.

  • 340

    Levenstein Revolution 210–1.

  • 341

    Walter Willett, Personal interview, Jan. 28, 2010.

  • 342

    Jessica E. Todd and Jayachandran N. Variyam, “The Decline in Consumer Use of Food Nutrition Labels, 1995–2006” Economic Research Report 63 (August 2008):10.

  • 343

    Id. at 19.

  • 344

    Brian Wansink, Marketing Nutrition: Soy, Functional Foods, Biotechnology, and Obesity (Champaign: Illinois UP, 2004):140.

  • 345

    Id. at 1.

  • 346

    Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Quaker Agrees to Tone Down Exaggerated Health Claims on Oatmeal,” Apr. 17, 2007.

  • 347

    William Neumann, For Your Health, Froot Loops, New York Times, Sept. 4, 2009, B1.

  • 348

    The Unrepentant Chocolatier, The Economist, Oct. 29, 2009.

  • 349

    Id.

  • 350

    Peter Barton Hutt, Personal interview, Jan. 14, 2010.

  • 351

    Levenstein Revolution 210.

References

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  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Wild Oats: The Oat Bran Craze 1988 to 1990
  5. Gruel Intentions: The NLEA and Quaker's Health Claim, 1990 to 1997
  6. Cash Crop: Leveraging Scientific Evidence 1997 to 2010
  7. Conclusion
  8. Abbreviations 
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Written Sources
  12. Secondary Sources
  13. Works Consulted Primary Sources
  14. Secondary Sources
  15. Appendix
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  6. Cash Crop: Leveraging Scientific Evidence 1997 to 2010
  7. Conclusion
  8. Abbreviations 
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Written Sources
  12. Secondary Sources
  13. Works Consulted Primary Sources
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  5. Gruel Intentions: The NLEA and Quaker's Health Claim, 1990 to 1997
  6. Cash Crop: Leveraging Scientific Evidence 1997 to 2010
  7. Conclusion
  8. Abbreviations 
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
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  5. Gruel Intentions: The NLEA and Quaker's Health Claim, 1990 to 1997
  6. Cash Crop: Leveraging Scientific Evidence 1997 to 2010
  7. Conclusion
  8. Abbreviations 
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Written Sources
  12. Secondary Sources
  13. Works Consulted Primary Sources
  14. Secondary Sources
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Appendix

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Wild Oats: The Oat Bran Craze 1988 to 1990
  5. Gruel Intentions: The NLEA and Quaker's Health Claim, 1990 to 1997
  6. Cash Crop: Leveraging Scientific Evidence 1997 to 2010
  7. Conclusion
  8. Abbreviations 
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
  11. Written Sources
  12. Secondary Sources
  13. Works Consulted Primary Sources
  14. Secondary Sources
  15. Appendix

We made many a “bran new” theory of life over a thin dish of gruel, which combined the advantages of conviviality with the clear-

headedness which philosophy requires.

- Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

  • image(1–)

[ Quaker advertisement (New York Times, Jan. 23, 1997). Quaker celebrates its historic FDA approval with a full-page notice. ]

  • image(2–)

[ Quaker advertisement (Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 25, 1880). The Post's first full-page, 2-color ad featured a Quaker health appeal. ]

  • image(3.–)

[ Quaker advertisement (Good Housekeeping, Nov. 1926). Expert and lay testimony of oats’ taste, health, and convenience. ]

  • image(4–)

[ Quaker advertisement (LIFE, Mar. 3, 1967). Quaker's message adapted for weight-conscious “Negative Nutrition.” ]

  • image(5–)

[ Kellogg advertisement (courtesy National Cancer Institute). Kellogg's groundbreaking 1984 All-Bran campaign overturned regulations. ]

  • image(6–)

[ Mark Alan Stamaty cartoon (Washington Post, 1990). Ambivalence about bran mirrored other anxieties of the late 1980s. ]

  • image(7–)

[ Donald Reilly cartoon (New Yorker, Jan. 16, 1989). Visualizing the outsized nature of many oat bran claims. ]

  • image(8–)

[ Quaker advertisement (New York Times, Jan. 14, 1996). Full-page advertisement published over a year before the final FDA decision. ]

  • image(9–)

[ Quaker advertisement (Journal of the American Dietetic Assn., Mar. 1999). This advertisement contained no straightforward “pitch” but was styled like a research report and used scientific terms to detail the Lafayette, CO study. ]

  • image(10–)

[ Quaker advertisement (Brand Week, Mar. 9, 2009) Quaker's “Go Humans Go” Campaign promoted the oat as “a super grain that powers your day, [ …] knowing you did something good.” ]

  • image(11–)

[ Quaker website, February 2010 (http://www.quakeroats.com/products). Sets forth Quaker brand identity, the full range of value-added options, and a new health-focused advertising campaign in a single web page. ]