Eat more tuna. On whole-wheat bread. With trans fat-free margarine.
Within hours of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's release of Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005, special interest groups were flooding the newswires, spinning the long-awaited recommendations to the advantage of their pet commodity or product.
The updated guidelines, said the U.S. Tuna Foundation, "will help to underscore the important health benefits of canned tuna and other fatty fish for people of all ages." It's true: The guidelines recommend a doubling—two servings weekly totaling 8 oz.—of previous levels of fatty fish consumption to derive their omega-3 benefits.
But it doesn't stop there. " ? Margarine products are in sync with recommendations" in the guidelines, says the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers, claiming that margarines with low levels of saturated fat and no trans fats are widely available and a good source of vitamin E.
With all the focus that commercial interests place on individual components of the guidelines, many seem to be missing the point. While the FDA did promote whole grains over refined, and unsaturated fats over saturated and trans fats, most of its emphasis was on calorie control and physical activity. It recommended moderate to vigorous exercise of 30 to 90 minutes duration—depending on whether the goal was to maintain weight, lose weight or prevent chronic disease—on most days of the week. Even when it came to making specific recommendations, FDA seemed to be promoting a holistic approach to nutritional health. With regard to fats, "We want consumers to focus on the totality [of trans fats, saturated fats and cholesterol] rather than on any one," said Robert Brackett, executive director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Nutrition.
It is here that the natural foods industry can make a significant impact, says David Seckman, chief executive director and CEO of the National Nutritional Foods Association. "We wholeheartedly support the recommendation that Americans meet their nutritional needs by consuming healthier foods, such as whole grains and by avoiding processed foods that are often high in trans fats," he said.
"Many Americans must make significant changes in their eating habits and lifestyles," to reduce chronic diseases caused by obesity, said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman in a joint statement. "We live in a time of widespread availability of food options and choices. More so than ever, consumers need good advice to make informed decisions about their diets." Organic advocates agree, but note that the guidelines don't go quite far enough. "Making the right food choice is about choosing the right quality, not just the right quantity," said Dr. Alan Greene, a pediatrician and board member of the Organic Center for Education and Promotion. "The higher up on the food chain you eat, the more important it is for you to choose organic."
In addition to reducing intake of empty calories and upping physical activity, the panel also noted that many adults are deficient in several nutrients, including calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium, and vitamins A, C and E.
The 13-member committee emphasized, however, the need to derive nutrients primarily from food. "In certain cases, fortified foods and dietary supplements may be useful sources of one or more nutrients that otherwise might be consumed in less than recommended amounts. However, dietary supplements, while recommended in some cases, cannot replace a healthful diet," the committee wrote.
With all the hoopla surrounding the release of the updated guidelines, they are not aimed at consumers. Instead, they are "intended primarily for use by policy-makers, health care providers, nutritionists and nutrition educators," according to the panel. The committee is expected to release an update to the current food pyramid—the visual manifestation of the guidelines—this spring. Until then, it's up to the food industry to educate consumers about what the government calls "our best science-based advice to help Americans live healthier and longer lives."