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Gleaning from the Food of Yesterday: The FDA

Updated: Mar 4, 2020


There once was a day when the producer and consumer of a food product were one in the same. Or, at the least, the producer and the consumer interacted at the point of sale and were likely part of the same community. Food was simply food, rather than a box of ingredients. When this simplicity was lost with the advent of the industrial revolution and food giants (discussed in previous articles), a need for government regulation of food arose. This week I want to take a brief look at the Food and Drug Administration (known as the FDA)--its conception and evolving mission.

In 1906, the FDA went from being a scientific institution, with a primary focus on agricultural research and development, to a law enforcement institution. Its first policy was the Pure Food and Drug Act, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. This law prohibited misbranded and adulterated foods, drinks, and drugs in interstate commerce. Quickly, the FDA was able to put a stop to thousands of so-called “patent” medicines of that era, such as “Kick-a-poo Indian Sagwa” and “Warner’s Safe Cure for Diabetes.” These medicines contained drugs such as opium, morphine, heroin, and cocaine, without any indication of their presence through labeling. Another role of the FDA was testing pesticides for agriculture and chemical food additives used to preserve or enhance the flavor of a food. If it wasn’t approved by the FDA-- the new golden standard-- it wasn’t sold on the market.

While the necessity of the FDA’s role is unquestionable, I would like to propose that the integrity of its standard has weakened as its mission has changed. Although there are a plethora of regulations to uncover in order to fully understand the FDA’s past and current regulations, if we listen to the men who led this agency, we can gain some valuable clues. Dr. Wiley, head Chemist until 1912, stated in in his work The History of the Crime Against the Pure Food Law, “No food product in our country would have any trace of benzoic acid, sulfurous acid or sulfites or any alum or saccharin, save for medical purposes. No soft drink would contain caffeine or theobromine. No bleached flour would enter interstate commerce. Our foods and drugs would be wholly without any form of adulteration and misbranding. The health of our people would be vastly improved and the life greatly extended. The manufacturers of our food supply, and especially the millers, would devote their energies to improving the public health and promoting happiness in every home by the production of whole ground, unbolted cereal flours and meals.” Sadly, Dr. Wiley was too much of a zealot for purity that his ideals didn’t fit with the emerging processed foods. Dr. Elmer M. Nelson took his place in 1912 and is quoted in the Washington Post, October 26, 1949, “It is wholly unscientific to state that a well‐fed body is more able to resist disease than a less well‐fed body. My overall opinion is that there hasn’t been enough experimentation to prove dietary deficiencies make one more susceptible to disease.[i]”

If you dig into the laws which determine if an ingredient is safe for consumption, you will see that many of the regulations align with Dr. Nelson’s astounding ideology to this day.

So, what do we do with this information? We need to take ownership of understanding the foods or drugs we put into our body. While the FDA may intend to protect us, their current laws provide for misleading products and marketing. I encourage you to start asking hard questions about the purity of the food you eat. As you do so, I am excited to support you and guide you toward the best choices.


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