Prepared Foods January 17, 2005 enewsletter

The government's putting more fruits, vegetables and whole grains on America's menu -- lots more.

Regular exercise and calorie control also take center stage in new nutritional guidelines that will influence everything from what is served in school lunches to what is stocked on supermarket shelves.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans inform consumers that they can slim down and stay healthy by eating more produce and whole grains and by avoiding foods high in sodium, added sugars, cholesterol, saturated fat and trans fat. The new government guidelines contain some of the most direct advice ever to eat less of certain foods and beverages.

"If you follow this diet, you're going to lose weight, be healthy and look better," said Tommy Thompson, secretary of the department of Health and Human Services. "It's common sense."

The guidelines are revised every five years by the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. They are the basis for all government nutrition efforts, including school lunch programs, the food guide pyramid and package labels. A revised food pyramid is due later this year.

The changes come at a time when two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and medical costs are soaring for chronic, dietary-linked conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Yet persuading people to adopt the new eating plan may be tough. Just 12% of Americans come close to the diet recommended in previous guidelines, government research shows.

The new guidelines advise even more of the foods that Americans typically consume the least: fruits, vegetables and whole grains. For adults, that means seven to 13 daily servings of produce rather than five to nine, and at least 3oz. of whole grains.

A 500-page report that is the basis of the guidelines was drafted by a scientific committee and issued only after government review and with input from the food industry and the public.

However, without a strong boost from the government and changes in processed foods and restaurant meals, the guidelines will not be as influential as they should be, said two members of the advisory committee, Carlos A. Camargo and Janet King.

"It needs to involve all aspects of our society, to address not only the food industry and our food supply, but also our work environment, our neighborhood environment, our transportation issues," said King, a professor of nutrition at the University of California-Berkeley.

The guidelines do not regulate what food is sold in stores or restaurants or how it is marketed, but the advice can influence food processors. Since the advisory committee issued its report last summer, several manufacturers have increased whole grain offerings, including a new line of Sara Lee sandwich breads and revamped General Mills cereals.

"It's our challenge to help change the food supply, and you're already seeing companies do that," says Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

Kraft announced that it would start promoting reduced-sugar Kool-Aid and healthier Post cereals on TV shows and in print publications aimed at children ages 6 to 11.

The report by the government advisory panel called for limiting artery-clogging trans fats, found in many processed foods such as crackers, French fries and margarine, to no more than 1% of daily calories, or about 2g daily. The final version of the guidelines dropped the specific limit, instead recommending that Americans keep their intake as low as possible.

Food companies said a numerical limit would cause them to substitute tropical oils high in saturated fats for partially hydrogenated oils that contain trans fats, which they argued was an unhealthier alternative.

"There's a target for saturated fats; there's a target for cholesterol. Why did that number get removed? That's my one disappointment," said Camargo, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard University. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, called for increased funding for education campaigns to promote the message in the dietary guidelines, and urged tighter regulation on the sale of junk food in schools.

"As good as these dietary guidelines are, they'll do little to improve the public health without effort by the agencies to improve the food environment and communicate the guidelines with the public," said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the center.

Thompson acknowledged the government needed to do a better job of getting out the message. Agencies will distribute a consumer booklet outlining the guidelines, and the government will promote the message through nutrition education in schools and food assistance programs, as well as in the revised food pyramid.

Yet in the end, Thompson said, it comes down to personal responsibility.

"It's up to individuals," he said. "You've got to watch what you eat and exercise."

Nonsense, said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.

"If we're going to take this seriously, everybody has to take responsibility for it," she said. "It just can't be the poor mom who works all day and has to deal with her kids around food issues. That's not fair when the food industry puts $34 billion a year into marketing, an enormous portion of which goes into marketing for children."