Revision of dietary guides ups ante for food industry

While the USDA gears up to revise the Food Pyramid for the first time, food firms and groups are trying to increase favor for their products within the icon.

While the USDA gears up to revise the Food Pyramid for the first time, food firms and groups are trying to increase favor for their products within the icon.

As the Food Pyramid undergoes its first revision in 12 years, the stakes are particularly high for food companies and trade groups as they scramble for a nod in the direction of their products. The US Department of Agriculture is revising the icon for the first time since it was created in 1992. The pyramid visually represents the number of serving sizes Americans should eat each day from six food groups. It currently recommends six to 11 servings of grains; three to five of vegetables; two to four of fruit; two to three of both meat and dairy; and small amounts of fats, oils, and sweets. Greater representation on the Food Pyramid would be a ringing endorsement for foods that have received at least part of the blame for the obesity crisis. A smaller share on the pyramid, meanwhile, could affect consumption of a particular food group. The threat is not only hypothetical. The success of low-carb diets has forced the food industry to reconsider its entire product line, even rolling out low- carb versions of certain foods. In addition, government food programs, like school lunches, are based on both the Food Pyramid and the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which are published every five years. Several groups are trying - and trying hard - to influence what the pyramid recommends. Disagreements are apparent in the hundreds of written and oral responses that the USDA received during its public comment period, which ended August 27. It's also apparent in the myriad press releases these groups are zapping to newsrooms throughout the country. Not all agree that interest groups should decide the issue. At least two senators - Peter Fitzgerald (R-IL) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) - have sponsored legislation to remove special-interest groups from the debate over the pyramid. Their Healthy Lifestyles Act would place the National Academies of Science, not the USDA, in charge of food guidance. "Putting the USDA in charge of dietary guidelines is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house," Reuters quotes Fitzgerald as saying. Industry concerns For industry, the debate is perhaps crystallized within carbohydrates. Atkins Nutritionals has been pushing the USDA to follow the low-carb pyramid it has created for followers of its diet. That pyramid has a base of meat and non-meat proteins, and recommends grains only "sparingly." On its website, Atkins has provided a template letter for its followers to send to the USDA. It begins: "My comments are based on my experience controlling carbohydrates, which has helped me regain control of my health and my weight." It encourages followers to share their success stories with the USDA. Atkins officials have also presented at USDA hearings and reached out to the media. In the carbohydrate aisle, the Sugar Association might have the most to lose - or to gain - from the changes. The government typically recommends limiting sugar, and consumption has been declining for decades, says Cheryl Digges, director of public policy and education for the Sugar Association. But so far, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has steered away from the usual recommendation, earning a scathing critique in a New York Times editorial. The Times suggested that the committee ignored the "growing evidence about the dangers of added sugar" because of "major financial and organizational connections" to the food, drug, and dietary-supplements industries. But Digges says that telling consumers to eat less sugar is "oversimplifying the message." "Sugars have a lot of functional value," she says. "We believe the Food Pyramid has value. [But] it doesn't really get to the issue of bad food choices." Last month, Robert Earl, senior director of nutrition policy for the National Food Processors Association (NFPA), was among 27 representatives who spoke in front of the USDA during the oral comment period. "The graphic needs to be flexible and reflect the reality of forums in which consumers purchase and consume foods - fresh, minimally processed, juice, dried, canned, frozen, and multi-component foods," he said at the hearing. This summer, the Dairy Council of California sponsored a forum to address what the Food Pyramid means to the food industry. Bill Layden, director of the food and nutrition practice at Edelman, who did not present at the forum, says that industry sees inclusion on the graphic as a "clear marketing opportunity." Edelman is the AOR for the National Dairy Council. The Dairy Council recently received a boost to its own promotional activities - the three-a-day campaign - when the dietary advisory committee endorsed the recommendation. The food companies do have their sympathizers. Dr. William Hart, a professor of human nutrition at Saint Louis University, says it's only natural that they would try to justify their products through the pyramid. He describes the food industry as "overly maligned." He notes, for instance, that processed foods contain as much sodium and sugar as they do because taste tests show consumers prefer those additives. "I think it's wrong to condemn the food industry for that sort of thing - they're responding to a market," Hart says. "If they can sell me something, why wouldn't they?" This revision process is also the first that has solicited industry opinions. "Historically, it's been a career scientist process and an academic process," says Dr. Eric Hentges, director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. But, at the same time, Hentges notes that individuals can judge for themselves whether there was bias in the process because all written and oral comments can be found on the internet. "This is the most open and transparent process ever to occur with this," he says. "Anyone can look at whether there was agreement or disagreement on what was proposed." Clarifying messages Even as groups express their disapproval over the attempts to influence the dietary guidelines, the USDA has been criticized for not doing enough PR around the messages conveyed in the Food Pyramid. The USDA has had to answer to statistics revealing that two-thirds of Americans are overweight and more than 30% are obese - more than ever before. The level of public interest in health and nutrition has reached what is, according to many accounts, an unprecedented level. "This is a serious issue. The attention applied to this issue has increased," Hentges says. "The media attention has gone sky-high." Much like 12 years ago, the USDA has turned to Porter Novelli for guidance on how to communicate detailed and complex dietary information in a way that most individuals will understand and use. In addition to doing media relations, Porter Novelli will review feedback submitted through the public comment periods. Although one of the possibilities on the table would be to scrap the Food Pyramid altogether and choose another visual aid, Hentges notes that the agency cannot discount the current graphic's high level of awareness - it has a recognition rate of almost 80%. It would not be fair, he says, to call the Food Pyramid completely ineffective. "Consumers recognize the Food Pyramid," says Stephanie Childs, manager of public policy communications at the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "But they don't have a clear understanding of what that means to them, and that's where we need to focus our efforts." "Messages of proportionality and variety have gotten through," Hentges says, acknowledging, however, that many individuals do struggle with caloric intake and serving sizes. "Some of those things we know have not gotten through." Not everyone agrees about the importance of the Food Pyramid in accomplishing the task of getting those messages across. "We don't expect people to learn to drive a car by following an icon. We shouldn't expect them to build a healthy diet by following an icon," says Layden. And then, of course, there is the difference of opinion about what should be on that icon. "Very, very smart people can disagree with what the [nutrition] evidence is saying," says Hart.

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