Dietary guidelines provide opportunity for education

It's January and the only thing that can be counted on more than snow in the Midwest is a daily dose of dietary advice.

It's January and the only thing that can be counted on more than snow in the Midwest is a daily dose of dietary advice. And this January there will be a veritable snowstorm of that advice when the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Although the guidelines release often goes unnoticed by consumers, its release usually sends shivers up the spines of food industry marketers given that they are usually taken to task for their contribution to the nation's obesity epidemic.

But rather than serve as a time of contention between the food industry and its critics, the release of the guidelines is the optimum time for food marketers to remind the world of their unique ability to deliver not just nutrition to consumers but also nutrition education. Clearly, it's the USDA's role to teach consumers WHY they need to make dietary changes. But it's the food industry that's in the best position to show consumers HOW to make those changes.

The guidelines are the set of dietary recommendations jointly issued and updated by Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) every five years under Federal mandate. Although intended to educate the population on the dietary habits that promote health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases and to serve as the basis for Federal nutrition policy and nutrition education activities, the guidelines also serve as a twice-a-decade reminder by health experts that the food industry needs to focus on the most primal purpose of food – delivering nutrition. When the advisory committee that helped shape the 2010 Guidelines released its recommendations this past summer, it took the industry to task for failing to provide a food supply in which “every option is a healthy option.”

The 2005 Guidelines release was a perfect example of showing consumers the HOW. That was the year that USDA and HHS declared that all Americans should consume at least three servings of whole grains per day. Although a recent survey by General Mills showed that only 5% of consumers are getting the recommended three servings per day, it also showed that more than 50% are seeking whole grains out in the supermarket. The NPD Group also found that whole grain consumption increased in the three years following the '05 Guidelines' release. While there's no research that clearly credits the food industry with that bump, anyone merely has to look at the sheer volume of packaging in the bread aisle calling out the need for more whole grains to understand the profound impact the industry can have on educating consumers.

The food industry can also help prepare the American palate for the changes in the food supply that the guidelines' authors suggest. Not surprisingly, this year, as in years past, the guidelines will ask consumers how to do more with less – less sodium, less sugar, less saturated fat, less refined. But, if you tell consumers that you're going to remove any of those things from their favorite products,  you also tell them that you're also going to markedly change the taste – and certainly not for the better. They're also none-too-pleased when you them they should be eating more plant-based foods.

Again, here's where the HOW comes in.  The food industry needs to do a better job of educating consumers that good health and good taste don't have to be mutually exclusive. If you're reducing sodium in your products, how do you keep the great taste in? How can you pair your products with fruits and vegetables so your products don't get cannibalized (intended) in the plant-based diet discussion? How can show kids to enjoy cereals with less added sugar?

Changing our well-ingrained dietary habits isn't going to be easy. But maybe, just maybe, we'll have a little more to look forward to come bikini season.

Ilene V. Smith, M.S., RD, is EVP of food & nutrition, at Porter Novelli.

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