Monday, November 23 — 12:00 noon — WAG 316

Xaq Frohlich, KAIST, Daejeon, South Korea

“Eating versus Treating: U.S. FDA’s Regulation of ‘Ordinary’ versus ‘Special Dietary’ Foods in the 1960s”

In the last fifty years there has been a shift in the United States in the regulation of health products away from drawing clear divisions between healthy and sick people towards what Joseph Dumit has called a “drugs for life” model in which the focus for the healthy and unhealthy alike is on the use of lifestyle-specific drugs, diets, and habits to cultivate a general state of continued healthfulness. This shift was in part driven by new medical models linking individuals’ present habits to future health risks, but was also partly driven by product marketing and a growing consumerist cult of “healthism.”

In this talk I will examine this transition through the appearance of three new diet food markets in the 1960s, each of which created problems for the way the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulated food and drug classifications and product labeling of: 1) vitamins and vitamin enriched foods, 2) low-calorie products made with new artificial sweeteners, and 3) low-saturated fat foods and fatty acids labeling. Each product raised different concerns for regulators. The first were health tonics that raised concerns about “nutrition quackery”; the second were associated with vanity dieting and risk-taking with new food additives; and the last raised a modern medical question of whether preventive care was just for the sick, or for everyone. I describe the arguments among FDA officials, industry lawyers, and medical professionals over whether these new foods should be labeled “special dietary,” with restricted marketing similar to that of prescription drugs, or instead opened up to the broader public for mass consumption. In part, the stakes were institutional: should consumers be empowered to take dietary decisions into their own hands, or would this subvert the role of the doctor in treating a patient? But the debate was also an argument about what was meant by an “ordinary” consumer and “risky” food. Was an ordinary consumer “healthy,” and therefore not someone who should be bothered about this kind of hypothetical, future risk? Or, as would become the paradigm, did all consumers have some right or even obligation to know about the potential that eating certain foods carried for giving rise to chronic degenerative illnesses?


Xaq Frohlich is 2002 graduate of the University of Texas, where he majored in History and wrote his senior honors thesis on controversies in the U.S. and Europe over genetically modified organisms. He received his Ph.D. at MIT in 2011 and is now an Assistant Research Professor at the Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy at KAIST in Daejeon, South Korea. His research centers on the “science” of risk assessment and risk communication, food as a liminal object that bridges the environment and human health, and socially responsible consumption. He is currently reworking his dissertation, “Accounting for Taste: Regulating Food Labeling in the ‘Affluent Society,’ 1945–1995,” into a book manuscript on the history of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s food labeling policies and the cultural ramifications of the “nutrition transition,” the turn from public health concerns about nutrition deficiency to the preoccupation with overeating.