The Skinny on Food in 2005

Expect a new Food Pyramid, labeling changes to reveal artery-clogging ingredients, and more fights over what constitutes a healthy diet

By Pallavi Gogoi

Food and drink may be basic necessities for survival, but consume too little or too much, and you could get sick and even die. Sounds simple enough. But in 2004, we learned just how complicated eating has become.

Low-carb mania gripped the nation, fueling debate about whether people ought to eat bread or even drink orange juice while trying to slim down. Americans' eating habits have spawned an epidemic of obesity, several studies showed. By late 2004, the low-carb craze was fading. But the questions the fad raised will influence food policy over the coming year.

Heading into 2005, food policymakers will be busy deciding on a new Food Pyramid and product-labeling rules. Capitol Hill lawmakers are sure to renew debate about the best way to fight obesity. Food companies and restaurants expect to continue lobbying to keep regulation at bay while simultaneously looking to devise new recipes, menus, and products that appeal to an increasingly weight- and health-conscious public. Here are five food topics moving to the front burner this coming year:

A New Food Pyramid

In 1992, the U.S. Agriculture Dept. created the Food Guide Pyramid, which tells Americans what constitutes a healthy diet. It recommends, among other things, that people eat 6 to 11 servings daily of carbohydrates such as bread, cereal, and pasta. Over the years, the Food Pyramid has increasingly sparked criticism for recommending food habits that some say aren't healthy -- like eating two to three servings of meat daily -- or for failing to distinguish between certain foods like white bread and whole-wheat bread.

In 2005, the government will release a new food guide, and it's expected to incorporate new scientific findings on what constitutes a healthy meal. Some food advocates have little hope that the government, facing tough lobbying from food companies, will take any drastic action.

One such skeptic is Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of the noted book Food Politics. She shows in her book how the meat lobby was able to change language in the current guidelines that would've encouraged people to eat less meat.

Meanwhile, some organizations, like the Harvard School of Public Health, aren't waiting for government action. It has created its own Food Pyramid, which calls for whole-grain foods at almost every meal and encourages people to eat meat sparingly.

Changes in Food Labeling

As the obesity debate rages on, the Food & Drug Administration has created some food-labeling changes. It's requiring businesses to include in their products' list of contents artery-clogging trans-fatty acids -- commonly found in snacks such as chips, cookies, and fried foods -- starting in January, 2006.

The FDA also sent letters asking food outfits to provide nutritional information based on both standard serving sizes and also the contents of the entire package. Consumer advocates say buyers are often misled because they assume the entire package represents one serving. In fact, even small snack packages may be labeled as two servings -- making it seem like the product contains half the fat and calories it really does.

Already, some companies such as PepsiCo's (PEP ) Frito-Lay division have started to provide this information on their products. You can expect more labeling requirements in 2005, especially on restaurant menus.

Better Snacks?

Coca-Cola (KO ) and PepsiCo are offering more juice and water in their beverage assortment. Also look for more low-cal-type fizzy drinks. The past year saw the launch of low-calorie drinks C2 and Pepsi Edge. Pepsi is now testing Quaker H2OH!, bottled water with a lower price than its current brand, Aquafina.

Snacks may continue to get healthier, too. PepsiCo, which has already removed trans fat from its Doritos and Tostitos, may make even more healthful snacks part of its recipe for profits (see BW Online, 10/26/04, "The Food Giants Go on a Diet"). "We're working on whole-grain versions of our snacks and looking at ways to serve vegetables and fruits as snack forms," says Mark Dollins, PepsiCo vice-president for public relations.

New Food Claims

In 2004, the FDA allowed companies that produce olive oil and walnuts to claim that these foods reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. "By using science-based information to evaluate qualified health claims, the FDA is making sure that consumers get information about the nutritional value of foods," says FDA Acting Commissioner Lester M. Crawford.

Look for more businesses to seek FDA approval for such product claims, especially as many consumers become more attuned to healthy eating. Bissinger's Handcrafted Chocolatier, an upscale chocolate maker in St. Louis, for one, claims in its latest packaging that its chocolates contain ingredients "linked to improved cardiovascular health, lowered risk for certain types of cancer, a reduction in body weight, and a slowing of the aging process."

Marketing Boost for Healthier Foods

Subway sandwich ads showcase children and adults who lost weight while eating the subs. In Wendy's (WEN ) ads, a child gorges on mandarin oranges as the outfit hawks its newly improved Kids' Meal. This is the first taste of much more health-related food marketing.

Recently, PepsiCo teamed up with Discovery Channel and its sister networks -- TLC, Animal Planet, Discovery Health, Travel Channel, and FitTV -- to air 10-second spots that will showcase healthy eating. The public-service spots will be followed by ads for PepsiCo foods promoted as healthy alternatives, from Quaker oatmeal to Tropicana orange juice.

Such marketing from PepsiCo and others surely will feed more debate on what makes up a healthy diet. But with so many forces in play -- government, corporations, consumer advocates, and the food police -- what we eat will surely never be simple again.

Gogoi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

Edited by Amey Stone

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