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Competition feeding drive for healthier food

The broad strokes of the “2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans” report released last week are elegantly simple:

Eating is and should be as pleasurable as it is necessary, but we also need to eat less, eat smarter and get more exercise. If we do, we’ll feel better and weigh less, we’ll enhance the development of our children, everybody will be less likely to get chronic, diet-related diseases such as diabetes and, in the process, we’ll help lower health care costs for ourselves and our country.

Beyond the general concepts, the language of the new report is clearer, more specific, more direct and, thus, more readable than that of previous editions. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services are required by law to update the dietary guidelines every five years.)

The new guidelines, for example, state simply that “Americans currently consume too much sodium and too many calories from solid fats, added sugars, and refined grains.”

They recommended that people “replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats” ― i.e., burgers, hot dogs, sausages, ribs ― “with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oils” ― i.e. more fish and seafood.

They recommend that Americans “reduce intake of sugar-sweetened beverages” ― i.e. soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks.

And they urge Americans to “reduce daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) and further reduce intake to 1,500 mg among persons who are 51 and older and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. The 1,500 mg recommendation applies to about half of the U.S. population, including children, and the majority of adults.”

Given our epidemic of extra weight and obesity, a direct approach makes sense. But in doing so, the report also treads ― gently, to be sure ― on territory long ruled by the formidable political power of giant agribusiness combines and international food conglomerates.

The new guidelines can be seen as challenging the business interests of soft drink manufacturers, fast-food chains, corn growers and syrup processors, packaged-food corporations, the meat industry and the salt industry, to name just a few.

Yet timing suggests that a critical mass may be coalescing around health and food in America, and big business could be a part of it.

Just days before the new guidelines were released, Wal-Mart announced a timeline for reducing sodium and added sugars and eliminating trans fats from its processed and packaged foods, much of it sold under its own brand. The retailer also plans to increase the supply and reduce the cost of the fresh fruits and vegetables sold in its stores. Standing beside Wal-Mart’s president, Bill Simon, at the press conference, was first lady Michelle Obama. Mrs. Obama, who has taken an active role in focusing attention on America’s weight problem, praised the company’s plans.

In reformulating their products to get a slice of Wal-Mart’s business ― some 15 percent of America’s total grocery sales ― food suppliers could extend the impact of the company’s initiative well beyond Wal-Mart stores.

In other words, the same competitive drive that produces America’s abundant food supply ― but that also feeds the country’s obesity epidemic and other weight-related problems ― could make healthier food a more realistic option for Americans of all income levels.

(The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 8)
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