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In Praise of Better Nutrition—with a Touch of Salt

The food industry stands at an historic nutritional crossroads.

On an early morning business trip in Seattle in January, I stopped at a Burger King for coffee and saw (for the first time in my experience) calorie counts under every item and value meal on the restaurant's menu board. The breakfast sandwich with the lowest count posted at 410 calories. The Ultimate Breakfast Platter weighed in with the most, at 1310 calories.

Neither number was surprising when I thought about them, but — underscoring the point many nutritional advocates make — seeing the numbers directly at point-of-sale did cause me to think again about grabbing a quick bite that would have consumed 25-60 percent of my daily calorie allotment. I opted to take the coffee only before continuing on to my destination.

As this issue of FM goes to press, those in the U.S. food and foodservice industries can expect to see countless millions of such “moments of truth” in coming years. A confluence of factors today will significantly change the country's awareness of the nutritional impact of food over that time. Consider:

  • the just mentioned menu labeling requirements of national healthcare legislation;

  • much stricter new USDA school food guidelines that follow recent recommendations by the Institute of Medicine;

  • First Lady Michele Obama's widely publicized support of school nutrition and the new authority given USDA that for the first time gives it authority over all food items sold in schools that participate in the national school lunch program;

  • the release this month of the updated, 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” which significantly reduces recommended daily intakes of sodium and calories.

  • a groundswell of city and state proposals (most driven by budget and tax needs) to tax the sugar in soft drinks;

  • Wal-Mart's public commitment to work with suppliers to reformulate its in-store brand foods to improve their nutritional content and package them with stronger nutrition labeling.

  • and FDA's ongoing efforts to require clearer, non-promotional nutritional information on the front of retail food packaging.

My view is that the new school nutrition requirements will be the most significant force among these. That's because they will more effectively work to educate K-12 students and their families about what indeed are healthful meals and eating behaviors. The other initiatives will provide consumers with information, but information can only build on learnings already in place.

My own generation grew up with just a crude awareness of what calories, vitamins and nutrients were, and with little understanding of the amounts needed for a healthful lifestyle. By the time some of us did learn more, our lifelong eating patterns, palates and habits had largely been established.

The promise of the new standards is that more better education about meaningful nutritional criteria — food's calorie content and requirements, its healthful levels of dietary sodium, the impact of high glycemic index foods on the body, etc. — will become more ingrained at a young age. And the hope — obviously — is that this knowledge will follow younger consumers through life.

As Boston College's Pat Bando points out in an interview elsewhere in this issue, the advent of grade school ecology classes in the 90s probably had a great deal to do with today' college students' embrace of environmental and sustainability initiatives, and a similar impact could well come from nutrition education.

I believe these forces together will also drive progressive food manufacturers to develop a new generation of more healthful food products that have much better taste profiles than similar products had in the past.

It is the advent of an exciting time, one with special implications for many in onsite foodservice. In coming months, we all will need to work with our industry partners as we and they take on the difficult but rewarding challenge of improving the quality and nutritional value of our nation's meals.

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