WASHINGTON - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a new report that encourages restaurants to offer more low-fat and nonfat milk products as a way to get consumers to follow the government's dietary guidelines.
Though it focused on food service, the report has implications for supermarkets.
"This is a great impetus for supermarkets to merchandise more of the single-serve plastic milk bottles in their prepared food area," said Serena Ball, a registered dietitian with the National Dairy Council, Rosemont, Ill. "Moms and kids are doing more dining-on-the-go and the industry is really responding by offering more low-fat milk options in plastic bottles that are being sold everywhere from the supermarket deli to Wendy's and McDonald's."
The FDA-commissioned report, "Keystone Forum on Away-From-Home Foods: Opportunities for Preventing Weight Gain and Obesity," offers suggestions for the most effective ways to influence consumer behavior, increase the availability of lower-calorie products and provide nutrient information.
Americans spend approximately 46% of their food budget on food prepared away from home and take in 32% of their calories from such food, according to the FDA.
More than 65% of Americans are overweight and over 30% are obese. Also, 15% of children and adolescents aged 6 to 19 are overweight.
"The recommendations may help industry members, educators, researchers, government and health care professionals take steps to reduce the obesity rate and the health and economic burdens that come with it," said Andrew C. von Eschenbach, acting FDA commissioner.
The Keystone report advises restaurants to increase their selection of low-fat and nonfat milk beverages, especially those offered with children's meals. Wendy's and McDonald's are among the quick-service restaurant chains that offer milk as part of their kids' meals.
Eateries should also consider pricing approaches that make lower-calorie beverages more appealing, the study suggested.
Packaging also has a dramatic effect on consumption. The report noted an increase in sales of 1% and 2% white and chocolate milk after 8-ounce plastic bottles replaced cardboard cartons at two quick-service restaurant chains and one fast-casual restaurant. Sales soared when the repackaged milk appeared on the menus.
In quick-service restaurant A, sales of the plastic milk bottles doubled, while quick-service restaurant B saw a 15-fold increase in sales, from 65,000 units to about 1 million units per week. The fast-casual restaurant saw a 5% increase. Milk sales at QSR A and QSR B have been sustained and healthy since the switch, according to the study.
On average, milk consumption usually increases eightfold at restaurants when plastic bottles replace cartons, according to Ball.
Milk consumption increased in schools an average of 37% when the plastic bottles were introduced, she said.
"Several studies link dairy with a lower risk of obesity," she said. "When you replace milk for another beverage or when you drink your three glasses of milk a day, several good things happen. You're usually displacing a nonnutritive beverage like a soft drink, plus dairy has calcium and protein, which helps you to feel full for longer."
The government recommends three servings of dairy a day. Skim milk has 80 calories per 8-ounce serving, while 1% milk has 100 calories. Low-fat chocolate and flavored milks usually contain 150-160 calories, Ball said. All milk, whether skim or flavored, contains nine essential nutrients including vitamin A, calcium, magnesium and potassium.
The report suggests that the Milk Matters program at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, as well as the Powerful Bones, Powerful Girls program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, could be expanded to build skills for selecting foods and beverages away from home.
In addition to promoting milk, food retailers should increase their low-calorie and zero-calorie beverage choices and provide smaller portion sizes, the Keystone report suggested.
The Keystone Center is a nonprofit organization that specializes in bringing together diverse participants to develop consensus on important public policy issues.