Natural foods retailers and manufacturers who offer prepared foods may have just received a boost from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
A report released June 2 by the FDA noted that Americans spend about 46 percent of their food budget on food prepared or purchased away from home, accounting for 32 percent of their total calorie consumption and potentially contributing to a nation of bulging waistlines.
The report, "Keystone Forum on Away-From-Home Foods: Opportunities for Preventing Weight Gain and Obesity," provides recommendations from experts in food industry, government, civic organizations and academia for improving consumers' ability to manage calorie intake from restaurant, foodservice, grab-and-go or other "away from home" meals.
The report targets actions that many natural foods retailers—but fewer restaurants and other foodservice operations—already emphasize, including:
- Providing nutrition and calorie information on away-from-home foods
- Updating standards for marketing those foods to children
- Marketing lower-calorie foods rather than their high-calorie counterparts
- Strengthening or creating education and promotion programs that emphasize the U.S. food pyramid
- Promoting healthy lifestyle education programs
- Emphasizing "calorie-sparing" cooking techniques in foodservice operations
- Limiting portion sizes
- Offering lower-calorie beverages
The report also offers tips for manufacturers. It cites a case study that found that using marketing terms like "fresh," "locally grown" or "Mediterranean" were more appealing to consumers than wording that emphasizes a product's healthiness. The report also recommended that manufacturers supply foodservice outlets with more low-fat dairy products, precut vegetables, nontraditional sandwich veggies like cucumbers and roasted eggplant and peppers, low-calorie condiments like mustard and salsa, and small-portion ethnic foods such as tapas, mezze and dim sum.
The forum also recommends that federal agencies conduct a comprehensive analysis of existing government-sponsored education and marketing campaigns that help consumers manage weight gain and obesity associated with away-from-home foods. In addition, it encourages industry and universities to conduct research on the connections between away-from-home foods, nutrition information and obesity, and on how consumers use nutrition information about those foods.
Reactions to the report were mixed. Center for Science in the Public Interest Nutrition Policy Director Margo Wootan said she hopes the report signals that "government policymakers will increase their scrutiny of the [restaurant] industry's practices and promises." She noted that 80 percent of Americans say they want nutrition information available for all menu items at restaurants.
National Restaurant Association President and Chief Executive Steven Anderson said the report "sets the tone for unfairly targeting the restaurant industry."
"We feel our industry has made great strides to promote nutrition and healthy lifestyles to our guests, and to educate them on the foods that we offer. Efforts to restrict or place mandates on our industry are not solutions," Anderson said in a statement.
The Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers, noted that the report ignores the link between obesity and Americans' plummeting exercise levels. In addition, research analyst J. Justin Wilson said: "The report ignores the best science about obesity. It implies that a picture of a salad will entice consumers to choose it over a burger, and that the public is too stupid to recognize the difference between the two."