The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

New dietary guidelines could change food purchase habits


Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius today released new dietary guidelines for Americans that could change the foods the government buys, encourage changes to the food stamp program in the next farm bill and affect USDA decisions on what research it funds and how it analyzes food consumption patterns.

The report could also change the way food is prepared — the most important recommendation is that all people reduce their daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams (from a current average of 3,400 mg) and that people 51 and older and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease limit their daily sodium intake to 1,500 mgs. The 1,500 mg recommendation applies to about half of the U.S. population, including children, and the majority of adults.

The report also recommended that people consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol. Officials said men currently consume more than 300 mg of cholesterol while women consume less than that.

On specific foods, the report contained few surprises and accentuated the positive on what people should eat rather than stating what people should avoid. As nutritionists have recommended for decades, the report said that people should increase their intake of fruits and vegetables, especially dark green and red and orange vegetables and beans and peas, consume at least half of all grains as whole grains, and drink fat-free or low-fat milk.

The report said some meat and poultry should be replaced with seafood, and that people otherwise should choose lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products and unsalted nuts and seeds for protein. It also said oils should replace solid fat wherever possible and urged people to choose foods that provide more potassium, dietary fiber, calcium and vitamin D and that they should limit foods that are substantial sources of sodium, saturated fat, cholesterol, trans fat, and added sugars.

USDA is also recommending that people avoid oversized portions, compare sodium levels in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals, and choose the foods with lower levels of those ingredients and drink water instead of sugary drinks.

“The bottom line is that most Americans need to trim our waistlines to reduce the risk of developing diet-related chronic disease,” Vilsack said at a press conference at George Washington University in Washington.

While Vilsack said the report would form the basis for government decision-making, changing the eating habits of Americans remains a challenge.

“I must personally admit that I had never read the dietary guidelines until I got this job,” said the secretary, who has previously noted having had a weight problem since childhood. Vilsack said that after he read the guidelines that he realized his diet was “a long way” from the recommendations and said that he and his wife, Christie, have used USDA’s My Pyramid system to change their eating habits.

Katharine Tallmadge, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, told Vilsack that the guidelines are excellent, but need to be promoted. The issue, she said in an interview, is for Congress to provide a budget so that USDA could help pay for schools to include nutrition education, cooking classes and recess in their curricula and for extension agents and dieticians to provide classes in community centers and in the homes of food stamp recipients.

“There needs to be money put toward educating parents, children, food processors and the American public,” Tallmadge said.

Research conducted by the International Food Information Council, an industry group, found that many parents do not have a conceptual knowledge of diets, do not want to count calories, and have a hard time making physical activity part of family life.

USDA has undertaken an experiment in Massachusetts through which food stamp beneficiaries can buy more fruits and vegetables than their benefit cards would normally allow, Vilsack said. The system pay retailers full value for fruits and vegetables but charges only 70 percent of the normal cost. USDA will evaluate the system to see if it increases purchases.

Sebelius also noted that the special nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC now includes fruits and vegetables. Living distance from grocery stores is a problem, she said, but noted that the economic stimulus package is providing funds to encourage grocery stores in “food desert” neighborhoods and the design of “more walkable” neighborhoods, while the health care bill will make it easier for people to get preventive care.

She also said that mothers “with kids tugging at them” in the grocery stores do not have time to read the labels on the backs of packages and that the Food and Drug Administration is working on nutrition labeling on the front of packages.

The committee that developed the recommendations comprised scientists and public health professionals under a system mandated by a 1990 law, although food industry groups and the public had an opportunity for input. Looming battles among food groups for the consumer dollar were evident at the news conference and in press releases sent out by food groups.

Nancy Chapman of the Soyfoods Association of North America was at the news conference to hand out a brochure promoting soyfoods as an easy way to switch to plant protein, as recommended in the guidelines.

Shalene McNeill, nutrition director at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said in a release that there are 29 cuts of beef that meet government guidelines for lean, including sirloin, flank steak and 95 percent lean ground beef.

“A recommendation to add fish to your diet doesn’t mean you should cut back on lean beef,” the McNeill statement said. “Both sources of protein offer unique yet equally important nutrients.”

Damian Martineau, a New Hampshire chef and restaurant owner and government relations chairman for the American Culinary Federation, said he believes Americans must be gradually weaned from the amount of sodium they consume. “You build up a tolerance to it,” Martineau said. “I don’t want to put salt and pepper shakers on the table, but people would throw knives at you.”

Chefs are on the front line, Martineau noted. “You can’t keep an item on the menu if people don’t order it.” Kids’ menus have macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets because that’s what kids want, he said. But if parents do not see healthy items on menus, they should ask the restaurant to add them.

Martineau said it is possible to substitute herbs and spice blends for sodium and that cooking with less sodium is not necessarily more expensive. “If you open the world of spices to people, salt will decline in itself,” he said. “Salt gets abused in bland foods like commercially prepared pork loin and chicken.”

Wearing a white jacket from the Academy of Chefs honor society, Martineau remarked that he has been working on nutrition issues since the Clinton administration, when Ellen Haas, then the undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, raised them, and that he is now working with First Lady Michelle Obama on her “Let’s Move” campaign to fight obesity. Food companies have promised Michelle Obama that they will reformulate many items to make them healthier.

More information:
International Food Information Council Consumer Research Report