Oh, What Those Oats Can Do. Quaker Oats, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Market Value of Scientiﬁc Evidence 1984 to 2010 Robert Fitzsimmons 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.
“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 MS 20111129 Submitted 9/1/2011, Accepted 9/22/2011. Author is with Harvard Univ., 1 Oxford St., 2655 Harvard Yard Mail Center, Cambridge, MA 02138, U.S.A. Direct inquiries to author Fitzsimmons (E-mail: rﬁtzsimmons@ post.harvard.edu).
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...
References: Doyle S. 2009. Personal interview. Ward T. 2010. Personal interview.
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We made many a “bran new” theory of life over a thin dish headedness which philosophy requires. of gruel, which combined the advantages of conviviality with the clear- Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
Figure 2–Quaker advertisement (Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 25, 1880). The Post’s ﬁrst full-page, 2-color ad featured a Quaker health appeal.
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Figure 3.–Quaker advertisement (Good Housekeeping, Nov. 1926). Expert and lay testimony of oats’ taste, health, and convenience.
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Figure 4–Quaker advertisement (LIFE, Mar. 3, 1967). Quaker’s message adapted for weight-conscious “Negative Nutrition.”
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Figure 6–Mark Alan Stamaty cartoon (Washington Post, 1990). Ambivalence about bran mirrored other anxieties of the late 1980s.
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Figure 7–Donald Reilly cartoon (New Yorker, Jan. 16, 1989). Visualizing the outsized nature of many oat bran claims.
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