The release of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is a time when U.S. consumers are supposed to look down and count the well-worn holes in their belts. Which way are they sliding?
Judging by the federal government's detailed and ambitious 2005 recommendations, the situation would appear to require stern measures, for the document pitches nothing short of a wholesale change in the way Americans live and eat. Among the top-line suggestions:
- 1980's "Eat foods with adequate starch and fiber" has specifically become 2005's suggested nine daily servings of fruits and vegetables, and three servings of whole grain.
- Instead of being advised to "avoid too much fat, saturated fat and cholesterol," consumers are now told to switch to low-fat dairy products and eat 6 ounces or less of lean meat and seafood per day.
- "Maintain ideal weight" is now an order to exercise 30 to 90 minutes daily.
The guidelines, which have been revised every five years since 1980, have always suggested that the average consumer eat a healthier diet than he actually does. Since rates of obesity and their associated chronic illnesses have risen steadily since 1980, it appears that the effort to combat these problems with longer, more detailed government documents may not be enough.
In fact, despite recent media coverage, fewer than one-third of American consumers said they are familiar with the new guidelines, with 22% describing themselves as "somewhat familiar" and 9% claiming to be "very familiar," according to a recent national telephone survey sponsored by the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.
Income, gender, education level and age tended to define familiarity in the survey; women, consumers with college degrees, individuals with household incomes topping $75,000, and people aged 46 to 55 were most likely to say they were "very familiar" with the government's new recommendations. By contrast, only 3% of consumers aged 18 to 30 made that claim.
Many consumers say they want to lose weight, so why are so many tuning out when their government pipes up every five years to tell them they are fat and lazy? It could be that they prefer to hear solutions couched in a more positive light, and that, as a result, they are in more of an information-gathering mood when the latest miracle diet or food fad is making waves.
"Look at low-fat foods and diets," said Marnie Sherno, a registered dietitian who is director of consumer health education for Clemens Family Markets, Kulpsville, Pa. "The term 'low-fat diet' is part of our vernacular now, but it was a novel concept 20 years ago. Once studies started linking excess fat intake to increased risk of chronic disease, the media propagated that information, and a subsequent influx of low-fat foods came onto the market."
Although comparisons are already being drawn between the recent low-carb craze and the low-fat craze of the late 1980s and early 1990s, most fail to mention the earlier fad's lasting impact.
"The low-fat fad turned into a trend toward decreasing fat intake. In 1978, Americans consumed 40% of their calories from fat on average; in 1996, 33%," she said, citing the latest numbers available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Continuing Survey of Food Intake by Individuals. The education has been gradual, but over time, consumers have also become more aware that there are different types of fat, each of which has a different impact on health -- saturated fats found in meat and dairy products; polyunsaturated fats like those found in olive oil; and omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in salmon and oily fish.
"In surveys, consumers still consistently list low-fat as one of the top healthier-item attributes that they're looking for," said Stephanie Childs, senior manager of communications for Grocery Manufacturers of America, Washington. "They really have become more aware of how saturated fats and trans fats impact their health."
At Clemens, Sherno explained that consumers receive much of their nutrition information from three sources: the media, word-of-mouth and the marketing efforts of food companies. They're generally quickest to adopt the fads that receive the most combined attention from those outlets, particularly when they're tied to "quick fix" solutions for weight loss.
With regard to specific foods and supplements, any media attention can generate a temporary spike in sales, but consumers will quickly abandon them if contradictory reports begin to emerge, or if they don't understand how to incorporate the product into their diet.
"Showing consumers how to select and prepare a food, and allowing them to taste it is more effective than simply conveying information," said Sherno. Pomegranates, for example, have received a lot of attention for their powerful antioxidant properties, but many people have never tasted one and wouldn't even know how to cut one, she said. Similarly, good news continues to emerge about omega-3s, which are now believed to prevent cancer, promote heart health, foster infant brain development and even relieve depression. Unfortunately, many customers don't know how to use flaxseed oil or cook fish, two of the best sources of the compound.
"If you provide recipes, food demos and discounts, you can effectively lead people to try healthy foods," said Sherno. "Once consumers discover a food can taste good and be good for you, many are inclined to purchase the product."
Processed-food companies have also become key to translating the latest scientific findings and government regulations into foods that fit more easily into the average consumer's lifestyle, rather than compelling consumers to change their consumption behaviors. In anticipation of this year's dietary guidelines, for example, several companies developed or reformulated products with whole grains. Omega-3s can now be found in eggs and even some new breads. Dozens of lower-sugar alternatives to regular products have been launched in the past 12 months.
"Food companies are always looking at what they can do to make the guidelines achievable and sustainable," said GMA's Childs. "Consumers aren't there yet, and they won't be there tomorrow, but over the course of the coming months and years, many companies are trying through innovation to move them slowly but surely in that direction."
Perhaps someday the varied and moderate diet envisioned by the USDA will emerge from the whirlwind of nutritional media and marketing. Until then, it appears that many consumers are prepared to get their exercise jumping on and off bandwagons.