WASHINGTON -- No matter on what side the food guide pyramid lands, fresh foods come out on top.
The updated version of the food pyramid released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends more generous servings of fruits, vegetables, dairy products and whole grains. Each category received wider colored bands than those for oils and meat/beans.
While the recommendations may come as little surprise, there are calls for the food industry and retailers to take advantage of the momentum generated by the release of the food guide system.
"With the amount of emphasis that's being placed on health and nutrition right now, it's a perfect time to combine food retailing and nutrition," said Allison Beadle, nutritionist/dietitian, H-E-B Central Market, San Antonio. "There are endless opportunities for retailers to provide consumers with point-of-sale information in a manner that is easy to understand, friendly, creative and fun."
The guide specifically highlights fresh foods in key categories. Produce is represented by green for vegetables and red for fruits. Grains are orange. Milk and milk products are represented by the color blue. The bands for these categories are wider than those for oil, which is yellow, and meat/beans, depicted by the color purple.
"With produce, nutrition is a given," said Kathy Means, vice president at the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. "You almost don't have to talk about it."
The new system urges Americans to consume six ounces of grains a day, with half of that amount coming from whole grains, which have become popular in many artisan breads and rolls. Debbie Davis, deli/bakery manager for Hannibal Village IGA in Hannibal, N.Y., said a new line of six organic, whole grain breads has been selling very well, even though they are comparatively small loaves and are priced at $3.99.
"They've been selling unbelievably well. There's no flour in them, just whole grains," she said. "We've had it for about a month now, and it's satisfying the immediate concerns customers have. Now that the new guidelines are out, there may be more demand."
In the deli, the store has added whole wheat Italian sub rolls for the store's popular sandwich program. "It makes people think the foods they're eating aren't quite so bad," Davis said.
The industry knows shoppers want healthy foods that are also hassle-free. How the guide system changes the dynamics of production and distribution remains to be seen.
"People want to eat things that taste good and are convenient. We have to make sure it tastes good every time, and it's easy to use," said Means. "The challenge is turning this into behavior, not just awareness. It can't just be a news story tomorrow, and then it's gone."
Robert Guenther, vice president of public policy at the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, based here, agreed, saying the industry has received its marching orders.
"Food choices are influenced by access, availability, cost, convenience, taste and other factors that we as an industry must address if we're really going to contribute to the way Americans eat," he said. "The guidance system and visual aids are very nice, but we have to put action behind that now. It's a partnership with the USDA that we're going to use as we go forward."
Brick-and-mortar retailers are expected to bring the message into stores, and virtual retailers are planning similar efforts on their Web sites. At least one Internet operator plans to incorporate a new page within its site that educates customers. New York-based FreshDirect will create a "Nutrient Dense" department, headed by its resident nutritionist, that will include information and products in each of the pyramid categories.
For any of these ideas to work, however, consumers must use the government's new Web site created for the initiative, called mypyramid.gov. There, anyone can enter their age, sex and the amount of time they spend on daily exercise to get a more personalized recommendation on their daily calorie level based on the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The USDA plan uses a total of 12 pyramids. The width of the food group bands varies according to the information that's entered on the Web site.