- Top of page
- Wild Oats: The Oat Bran Craze 1988 to 1990
- Gruel Intentions: The NLEA and Quaker's Health Claim, 1990 to 1997
- Cash Crop: Leveraging Scientific Evidence 1997 to 2010
- Written Sources
- Secondary Sources
- Works Consulted Primary Sources
- Secondary Sources
“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.
- Top of page
- Wild Oats: The Oat Bran Craze 1988 to 1990
- Gruel Intentions: The NLEA and Quaker's Health Claim, 1990 to 1997
- Cash Crop: Leveraging Scientific Evidence 1997 to 2010
- Written Sources
- Secondary Sources
- Works Consulted Primary Sources
- Secondary Sources
“[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.