New food pyramid boosts better-for-you foods

The new food pyramid, launched recently by the US Department of Agriculture and based on its January 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, furthers the concept of ?better-for-you? foods by highlighting the benefits of whole grains, healthy fats and low-fat dairy products for consumers.

For food formulators, the pyramid represents an opportunity to continue developing healthier functional foods alternatives.

?The dairy industry has been a leader in product formulation and reformulation to help meet consumers? health preferences. We have low-fat everything,? said Greg Miller, PhD, senior vice president of nutrition and product innovation at the National Dairy Council in Illinois. ?The new direction is to eat more dairy, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.?

Whole-grains purveyors were pleased at the emphasis on their products, especially since it helps consumers differentiate between good and bad carbs. ?Old-line bakers were absolutely killed by the Atkins diet,? said Rick Young, vice president of sales and marketing at Briess Malt & Ingredients Co in Wisconsin. ?Now what we?re seeing is whole-grain carbs are good carbs, vs the bad carbs of refined white sugar and white flour.?

Healthy fats, like healthy carbs, are also differentiated in the new pyramid. Walnut interests were quick to point out that fish are not the only source of essential fatty acids. ?As a beneficial alternative to marine sources, walnuts are one of the best sources of alpha-linolenic acid — the plant form of omega-3 fatty acids,? said Ritva Burtrum, PhD, senior science adviser at the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Because the US government has no money in its budget to market the messages in the new MyPyramid, it is counting on industry groups to promote the message to consumers. And they are clearly stepping up. Cereal giant General Mills said it plans to print MyPyramid on 100 million boxes of its whole-grain reformulated Big G cereal brands.

The new pyramid graphic features colour-coded vertical stripes of varying widths, meant to emphasise the need to eat from various food groups proportionately. Whole grains get the widest swath, with vegetables and dairy products tied for a close second. It advises consumers to ?go lean on protein? and to limit solid fats such as butter, margarine and lard. Steps run up the side of the pyramid to highlight the need for physical activity.

The new website — which received 160 million hits in its first three days online, of which 20 per cent were from outside the US — encourages web surfers to customise the pyramid by age, gender and activity level.

Although a reported 80 per cent of Americans recognised the old food pyramid, which was unveiled in 1992, the obesity epidemic also skyrocketed during that time. That has led some commentators to question whether the revised pyramid will really amount to more than a hill of beans.

?The whole concept of replacing unhealthy food with healthy food is very hard to find,? said Carlos Arturo Camargo Jr, MD, member of the dietary guidelines advisory committee and professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. ?I?m pretty sceptical.?

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