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Many full-service operators will tell you that vegetarian items are typically slow sellers, which is why they are reluctant to menu them. But this may be the year to rethink that stance, given new data on what people should eat and what they say they will eat.

The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, jointly released in mid-January by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, should convince plenty of people to pay more attention to what they eat.

The guidelines are intended to provide consumers with practical, easily understood, science-based dietary advice for good health. They are reviewed every five years; the 2005 edition is the sixth. The latest review was conducted by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, an independent group of experts who assessed the latest science and made recommendations to HHS and USDA to promote better health among Americans.

The guidelines themselves won't create many customers for fruit and vegetables and other vegetarian fare in your restaurant. But the accompanying media blitz just might. Produce for Better Health Foundation president Elizabeth Pivonka, Ph.D., R.D. expects news of the new guidelines to dominate media coverage in the days and weeks ahead. "Consumers will hear the message 'eat more fruits and vegetables' countless times, first through breaking news via television, the Internet, newspapers and the radio, and later through magazines which will generate unprecedented positive attention for fruits and vegetables," she says.

The Produce For a Better Health Foundation has previously been pushing the "5 A Day" program. If you think the average person had trouble coming to grips with the five servings of fruits and vegetables per day recommendation of the previous guidelines, you can imagine what they'll think of the new standard--10 servings a day (also expressed as five cups). The rule now is "Make fruits and vegetables half your plate at every meal."

This message has already been focus group-tested, and it's touted as a memorable rule of thumb. Operators in many full service segments may want to keep it in mind as they devise menu offerings that piggyback off these new standards and their accompanying publicity bonanza.

But will many consumers actually be receptive to the message being sent? A lot of them might, according to the findings of a study released in late December. Survey firm Opinion Research polled 1,000 randomly sampled adult Americans on behalf of refrigerated vegetarian food supplier Lightlife. Here's what they found:

¥ 62% of respondents said they will eat foods that are more natural in 2005.
¥ 44% like foods that are natural, nutritious, convenient and taste good, but said such foods are hard to find.
¥ Another 44% said they usually observe a diet that includes meat, but occasionally eat vegetarian products because they know how healthy and good those foods are for them.
¥ 14% usually follow a vegetarian diet but occasionally eat fish or meat. They are otherwise known as "flexitarians."
Also, operators with an Atkins- or South Beach diet-friendly menu take note. One-quarter of this survey's respondents said they are looking to eat less meat in 2005. Of these, 38% say they are reducing the amount of meat they eat because they have been on a high protein/low-carbohydrate diet and want more balance in 2005.
On the downside, 53% had doubts about the taste of vegetarian meals, and, as stated above, 41% said vegetarian foods "just seemed too weird."
That might be, but both vegetarian and non-vegetarian soldiers in Iraq are eager to consume these foods anyway. They're particularly big on Teriyaki Soy Chicken with Rice and Soy Beef & Broccoli with Rice frozen entrŽes. These items are all-natural soyfood entrees made and frozen in the U.S. by Iowa-based, farmer-owned soyfoods company Heartland Fields. Each entrŽe provides about 450 calories, only 60 of which come from fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, no cholesterol, 5 grams of fiber, and between 14 and 19 grams of protein. If hard-core soldiers are asking for items like these while out on the battle lines, your customers might also find them appealing.

The HHS statement announcing the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans can be viewed online at

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's report to USDA and HHS can be viewed online at

The full USDA/HHS guidelines report is available here:

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