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WASHINGTON - Representatives from the food industry were on hand here late last week to offer their views on how the food pyramid might be improved -- or, at the least, better communicated to consumers -- as the Aug. 27 deadline nears for written comments on the issue.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is revising its nutrition graphic to reflect new eating guidelines that are due out early next year from a dietary guidance advisory committee, heard five-minute comments from 27 participants, including representatives from the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, and the National Food Processors Association, each of which has a stake in the pending change.
The current pyramid has a broad base of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta, at six to 11 servings a day, with meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts on the next-to-narrowest tier, at two to three servings a day. Surveys have found that about 80 percent of Americans recognize the shape, but less than 10 percent follow the nutrition recommendations that form the basis for the graphic.
"If we are going to help Americans change their shapes, we should not focus on changing the shape of the Food Guide Pyramid," said GMA director of scientific and nutrition policy Alison Kretser in a statement released last week before the meeting. "Instead, the USDA, health professionals, and the food industry need to take this opportunity to clearly communicate what individuals and families can do to create healthy diets and lifestyles."
Dr. Stuart Trager, medical director of the Atkins Nutritional Approach, proposed a pyramid that reflected the high-protein weight-loss regimen -- a wide base of meat, poultry, fish, and other protein sources, with relatively few carbohydrates at the top. Next to that pyramid was another pyramid that widened as people increased their physical activity, indicating that people could eat more carbs if they exercised more.
"The current food pyramid does not convey the idea of moderation in food consumption nor the need to exercise," said American Meat Institute (AMI) c.e.o. and president J. Patrick Boyle to CNN in an interview that will air this week. Boyle noted that AMI believes that the "pyramid is a useful tool" that is widely recognized by the public and has the ability to convey some of the basic tenets of good nutrition, like a diversified diet. He also noted that AMI agrees with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee, which will likely recommend to the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion that Americans should continue consuming two to three servings of meat per day to achieve a nutritionally adequate diet.
Meanwhile Jennifer L. Tong, director of food safety and nutrition outreach at the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, noted that the average American eats only 1.5 servings of fruits and 3.3 servings of vegetables daily, although the current pyramid suggests at least five to nine servings. "United believes that it's time for the government to refocus its efforts and develop programs, such as the food guidance system, that aggressively address this problem," she said.
Although the Produce Marketing Association didn't present comments at the meeting, spokeswoman Kathy Means told Progressive Grocer that it will submit written comments to the USDA. "We believe that the serving suggestion of five to 13 fruits and vegetables that has been proposed by the dietary guidance advisory committee should be maintained, because it's based on science." She added that fruits and vegetables should have the most prominent position on the pyramid, noting: "As it stands, we're the only underconsumed category on the pyramid."
Robert Earl, senior director for nutrition policy at the National Food Processors Association, also pushed for more public education materials to educate consumers on the upcoming 2005 Dietary Guidelines. "The graphic and educational components of the Food Guide Pyramid should reflect the reality of the forms in which consumers purchase and consume foods -- including fresh and processed foods," he said. "It is important that consumers understand an abundant variety of processed and composed foods exist that provide high nutrition, convenience, and consumer value."