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Food scientists: let a dietitian take you to lunch today

Who knows, by the end of the meal, you might have the best R&D plan to help Americans make better food choices. This thought struck me—a food scientist working in the nutrition world—while I cruised the expo floor at the American Dietetic Association’s (ADA) national convention a couple of weeks ago. Several hundred exhibitors were offering their latest food products to appeal to the 10,000 registered dietitians looking for healthier foods. It seems that food scientists could take a cue from them.

Registered dietitians are leading the way in making informed food purchasing decisions. Food processing experts need to understand that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) is a driving force in the search for ‘healthier foods’ by registered dietitians, other health professionals, and the informed public. Dietitians are looking for foods made from whole grains, low-fat milk products, foods lower in sugar, salt, and fat, and foods incorporating more fruits and vegetables. Why?

The DGA gives science-based advice on food and physical activity choices for health, and serves as the source for all federal nutrition policy. The 2005 edition of the DGA is currently under review and will be updated in late 2010. The recommendations in the DGA are for the general public over 2 years of age. The DGA describes a healthy diet as one that emphasizes food choices that:

  • highlight fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products;
  • include lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts; and
  • are low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt, and added sugars.

Because dietitians apply the DGA in meeting the needs of consumers, they are demanding new whole grain, veggie, fruit, low sodium, and low-fat milk products. As a result, there were dozens of new types of crackers, chips, and snack foods being offered at the ADA convention. New whole-grain versions of veggie wraps and tortillas with pieces of dried veggies and combinations of beans and vegetables were available. Also highlighted were many types of low-fat and fat-free yogurts. Non-nutritive sweeteners and calorie-free beverages and other products also made an impression at the ADA show. Exhibitors looking to be ahead of the curve are creating new products to be ready to meet the increasing demand of dietitians and other health professionals for healthier food products.

Americans recognize that better health is based on making better food choices—and they are shopping for them. Tracking the evolution of the DGA has already resulted in packaging and labeling efforts to promote foods for their health qualities. Food technologists need to jump-start their efforts to create products that justify the enhanced promotion of products and that are truly ‘healthier’ choices. It will be exciting to see how food producers respond to the dietitians’ challenge over the next few years. Would you like to go to lunch?

Robert Post
Deputy Director, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion
U.S. Department of Agriculture

3 Responses

  1. YES!!!! Thank you!
    R&D Departments need to stop being driven by marketing and start being driven by GOOD NUTRITION!! I am so tired of products that are branded to be healthy choices but are really lacking in the nutrition department. Sure, something can be low in fat and calories, but if it also has 75% of you DV of sodium per serving, that’s a deal breaker!!

    This is also very timely given the industry rejection of the Smart Choices program. Thanks for a great ePerspective!

  2. The challenge isn’t to make a good product, it’s to make the consumer actually buy it and eat it, and most of them don’t put their money where their mouths are. They say “we want less salt , less sugar and less fat”, but then they pick the saltiest, fattiest or most sugary product while your healthy product never even makes it through the taste panel (never mind onto the grocery shelf ). Or they buy the low sodium frozen meal and pour salt on it (I’ve actually seen people do this). Taste trumps everything.

  3. While it is important to note that there is an increasing demand for food that tastes better but offers a health halo, it is equally important to understand that the processed food industry is not in the business of telling consumers what to eat for their own good.
    Product developers and food scientists are trained in nutrition but it is going to be the marketing department that is going to dictate the attributes of any product that will enter the market.
    Perhaps the ADA should shift its focus on the MBA programs and instead, leave Food Scientist to do what they do best – solve problems. This is not to imply that nutrional sciences are not important for any food scientist, however we are not the ones who are usually driving the boat.

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