Consumers want to eat more healthfully, but need help understanding what constitutes a nutritious diet. And corporate America, along with bureaucratic America, is getting the message.
It's about time, said Stephen Joseph, the attorney who gained notoriety by suing Nabisco over the trans fats in its Oreo brand cookies, and chief executive of BanTransFats.com. "The whole [notion] of responsible marketing versus reckless marketing is a great idea," he said. "We practically need to be walking spreadsheets to keep this stuff straight."
After all, the federal government's Food Guide Pyramid has six categories of foods, and many nutritionists consider its definitions and recommendations vague at best and harmful at worst. Current recommendations include six to 11 daily servings of bread and grains, two to four servings of fruit, two to three servings of meats and other proteins, three to five servings of vegetables and two to three servings of dairy products. It advises Americans to use fats, oils and sweets "sparingly."
"It's supposed to tell you, isn't it, in any particular case, 'Should I eat this or not?'" Joseph asked rhetorically. "It doesn't."
That may help explain why the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in partnership with the Food Marketing Institute and the International Food Information Council, recently released a brochure, "Basic Maintenance for Your Body," intended to help consumers personalize the pyramid to their eating patterns.
And in July, the Food and Drug Administration announced it would require manufacturers to list the amount of trans fat on the nutrition labels of their products by 2006. The FDA reported that 2,000 to 6,000 lives are lost each year because of trans fats. Manufacturers use a process called hydrogenation, which converts liquid oils to solid form and extends shelf life. The result is a trans fat, which is widely believed to be more dangerous to heart health than any other kind of fat.
Joseph should be delighted with the FDA action. The information on "the Triscuits box ... is going to be more important [to consumers] than any food pyramid," he said during a recent speaking engagement.
The government's actions coincided with corporate responses to health concerns. Kraft Foods Inc. announced earlier this summer that it would reduce its portion sizes and examine the contents of its products. Nestle and Cadbury Schweppes said their British divisions would remove hydrogenated fats from some of their products.
What's going on here? "People are absolutely ready to do what they have to do—but they don't know what they have to do," said Dr. James Rouse, a Denver-based naturopathic physician, during a recent panel discussion on the food pyramid.
"That was our intent—to clarify what a healthy diet is, what a healthy lifestyle is," said Wendy Davis, a registered dietitian and manager of consumer affairs at FMI. "There's so much controversy out there with the Zone Diet, the Atkins Diet . . . [that] consumers are confused with what they should be eating."
The brochure "focuses on more of a healthy lifestyle rather than just focusing on diet," said Davis. In addition to the dietary guidelines, it also has a section called 'Portion Distortion.'
"It explains what one serving from the food guide is and what we're actually consuming in real life," Davis added.
In addition to listing standard serving amounts (such as one serving from the vegetable group is a half cup of cooked vegetables or one cup of leafy green salad), the brochure's authors also use reverse examples to outline how many servings of a given food group a typical meal represents. For example, it informs consumers that a small order of french fries constitutes at least two vegetable servings, while two slices of pizza count as a half-serving from the milk, yogurt and cheese group.
Besides, said Davis, "We couldn't actually change the Food Guide Pyramid"—at least not yet. "But what we did reflects the controversy right now about the Food Guide Pyramid and portion size."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 8/p. 10