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A diachronic study of food labels with a particular focus on verbal and pictorial narratives that are relevant to health

Olsen, B. M. (2022) A diachronic study of food labels with a particular focus on verbal and pictorial narratives that are relevant to health. PhD thesis, University of Reading

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To link to this item DOI: 10.48683/1926.00113323


This thesis is about the verbal and visual presentation of health messages on food labels dating from 1850 to 1970. Health messages may describe the contents of the package, highlight the quality of ingredients, and inform or convince consumers about the health benefit of a particular food or nutrient. However, the verbal and visual presentation has changed over time, taking into account social changes, the discovery of the relationship between diet and health, and various label regulations. The study aims to demonstrate that language and imagery used on food labels to depict the food´s health advantages is repeatedly linked to critical incidents related to health, indicating that manufacturers at any time have understood the marketing potential of including health-related information on their products. The method used in this thesis can be summarised as a systematic review of a selection of food labels from three periods: 1850–1918, 1918–1945 and 1945–1970. It comprises developing a descriptive framework including a checklist of attributes to identify and describe the linguistic and graphic features of these labels. Four case studies are identified and analysed using this method in order to discuss how health messages are represented verbally and visually. The analysis is informed by the following: • the use of the word pure on food labels from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to communicate non-adulterated food, • how early nutrition science reflects the representation of vitamins in a selection of food labels from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, • how post-war diets and health are reflected on labels for convenience food, and • labels for milk and milk-related products and how they have changed over time. The case studies identify a number of health messages and show that changes in these messages were driven by significant health concerns, medical discoveries, and various health trends. For example, the food industry met the experts’ (government medical advisors, and doctors and nutritionists) identification of dietary concerns by manufacturing new and ‘healthy’ products, and health messages promoted food quality by establishing a link to modern nutritional science or particular health considerations. Adoption of the research methods used in this thesis could prove helpful in a further analysis of the effectiveness of the presentation of linguistic and graphic elements on packaging in relation to current health trends. Aligning the results of this analysis with the role of corporate advertising guidance for designers would highlight the food industry’s approach to consumers’ needs and expectations in terms of promoting information about nutrients and healthy foods.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:Walker, S., Poynor, R. and Black, A.
Thesis/Report Department:School of Arts and Communication Design
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Arts and Communication Design > Typography & Graphic Communication
ID Code:113323


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