Food companies are in a unique position to influence eating patterns and rescue America from its descent into obesity, writes Anthony Fletcher.
This was the conclusion of the state of the food industry forum at the International Food Technologists (IFT) conference in New Orleans last week.
"The food industry is in a better position to educate consumers than anyone else," said Carl Dooley, president and CEO of the Food Products Association (FPA).
"With food information we can provide a great service. We share the objective of USDA and FDA that when a consumer leaves the supermarket, he or she will have products that can lead to a healthy diet."
The forum also evaluated the effectiveness of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) guidelines, which USDA secretary Ann Veneman claimed were designed to "address the epidemic of overweight and obesity."
The DOAC decided that portion control was of critical concern, and devised a new pyramid model using the leanest form of every food product category.
"The US has forgotten what an average serving size is," said Connie Weaver, professor of foods / nutrition at Purdue University and a member of the USDA panel involved in drawing up the new dietary guidelines earlier this year.
"But I've been very impressed just walking through the IFT exhibition, as it shows how well food companies are dealing with trans fats, portion sizes and getting portion sizes down."
Dooley said that the food industry's challenge is to find ways of complementing the DGAC guidelines.
"Eating pattern and diets make the difference," he said. "The food industry can provide a wide range of products to enable choice and provide information. This shows the industry stepping forward."
Portion size has indeed become a critical reference point in the fight to restore balanced diets in the US. "We're finding that the serving size determines how much people eat," said Weaver. "Calorie portion control is another positive step forward."
There is a lot of work to do however. Dooley points out that food companies can only feasibly provide products when and where there is a demand. "We have all seen instances when healthy products, if they are not tasty, will simply not create demand in the market," he said.
In addition, regulators and food companies need to get the language right in order to ensure that nutritional advice is heeded. For while health professionals see food and nutrition as interchangeable, consumers often view food and nutrition as separate, with nutrition getting in the way of food enjoyment.
"It needs to be positive," said Sylvia Rowe, International Food Information Council (IFIC) president and CEO.
"Poor labeling can lead to worse choices being made. We need to understand how to talk to consumers and provide the context; in other words we need to merge food science and nutrition."
Clearly, some messages are still not getting through. Some of the FPA's research findings do not make for comfortable reading. The association found for example that French fries is the most consumed vegetable for infants at 15 months of age. "Also, 26 to 30 percent of all infants have fries every day of their lives," said Dooley. "This is where we need to step up."