Retro-Grade: What the La Choy Dragon Can Teach Us About Advertising Law, FDA Standards of Identity, Evolving Gender Roles, and Noodles

The La Choy Dragon, from a 1960s product label.

The marketing of pasta products sold in American grocery stores is a fascinating case study in the evolution of FDA food standards, American marketing, and even gender roles, as well as the growing diversity of America’s consumer population and its palate.

Most of the Food and Drug Administration’s standards of identity for food products were formulated in the early 20th century, and they reflected the foods in American stores and kitchens of that time. America was a less diverse country then, and the people writing its laws and regulations were even more homogeneous. The names of the foods defined in the FDA’s regulations were those familiar to, and used in the sense understood by, the descendants of western European immigrants from the 18th and 19th centuries. One of those words was “noodle.”

“Noodle products,” in the FDA’s standard of identity then and to the present day, are foods “prepared by drying formed units of dough made from [wheat flour] with liquid eggs, frozen eggs, dried eggs, egg yolks, frozen yolks, dried yolks, or any combination of two or more of these, with or without water and with or without one or more [specified] optional ingredients.” The presence of either whole eggs or egg yolks, constituting at least 5.5% of the product by weight, was integral to this definition. It was a classic Italian recipe, and accurately described the “noodles” marketed to at least the majority of Americans at that time.

Enter the Dragon

In the 1930s, the La Choy company of Detroit introduced what it wanted to call “chow mein noodles” to complement its existing lines of canned Chinese-style vegetables. But its noodles, like most Asian noodles, were not made with eggs. One option existed: La Choy could call its product “macaroni,” another FDA-defined term whose standard of identity was almost identical to that of noodle products, but without the requirement of eggs as an ingredient. This was obviously unsatisfactory, with its connotations of an Italian-style product of a very different expected shape and size. So La Choy and other early Chinese-style food marketers sought, and obtained, FDA’s agreement that it would exercise enforcement discretion not to hold them to the standard of identity for noodle products, provided that they prefaced “noodles” with “Chinese,” “Chow Mein,” or otherwise marketed them in a context where their Asian style was clear.

And that made possible such wonderful, albeit slightly cringeworthy, TV commercials as an early (1967) Jim Henson and Frank Oz collaboration. In La Choy’s commercial, its spokesdragon lectures a hapless husband on the merits of La Choy canned chow mein, and helpfully adds, “And don’t forget the La Choy noodles!”

Notable in the commercial is the dragon’s claim that La Choy chow mein is “quick-cooked in dragon fire.” This explanation for why the chow mein is always crisp and never mushy is one type of classic commercial puffery – an obviously exaggerated or impossible claim, made to be humorous or memorable rather than to communicate factual information. The claim was repeated on the product label, and was even accompanied by an asterisk, which led to the disclaimer: “*La Choy Food Products’ descriptive phrase for its quick-cooking process.” What La Choy thought it was accomplishing with this disclaimer, I can’t imagine. Its use of the word “descriptive” might even have hurt its legal position for either a puffery defense or the enforcement of the claim as a trademark, by suggesting that the claim was a true description of a cooking process. A word like “imaginative” or “fantastic” may have been much better.

We habitually grade the vintage ads in our Retro-Grade blog posts. I would have to split the grade for this one. It gets an A for entertainment, a so-bad-it’s-good D for the actors’ performances, and an F (through modern eyes) for both fire safety and wokeness with respect to gender roles.

Later Developments

Later, in 1971, a new noodle appeared on the American scene. These were the instant ramen products, introduced by the Japanese firm Nissin, which also wanted to call themselves “noodles” despite not being made with egg, but were not Chinese. In 1973, Nissin and other instant ramen producers similarly obtained permission from the FDA to call their products “noodles,” so long as prefaced with “Ramen,” “Japanese,” or a similar term. The basic standard of identity, however, never changed. Today, it is thoroughly out of step with consumer understanding, but continues to function with patches (to borrow a term from the software industry) through the practice of enforcement discretion.

There was actually a series of La Choy dragon commercials promoting both the chow mein vegetables and the noodles. Click here and here. They all earn the same grades as “Wifeless Husband” above, except, if possible, they get even lower grades for fire safety.

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