R&D / New Food Products / Packaging / Food Safety

Only You Can Make the Food Pyramid Work

Only General Mills has seized on the opportunity; other food companies must step up.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

In the week following the unveiling of the new Dietary Guidelines pyramid by the Dept. of Agriculture, there was near-universal criticism of the new symbol as too vague, too specific, too complicated, too Internet-based. It’s an effort that probably was doomed to at least criticism from the very start. After all, the first pyramid was a simple icon, and even that didn’t appear to work.

But it needn’t be doomed to failure. Why not get behind MyPyramid and give it our collective best shot before writing it off? It’s easy to criticize; it’s harder to take the high road. Now that we have a new pyramid, or 12 of them, why not embrace the symbol and make it part of your marketing plan?

As I’ve said here before, the food industry is not the cause of the obesity crisis; but it sure could be the solution. With the proper collaboration, MyPyramid could be a big part of that solution.

With the new pyramid actually being a set of 12 individualized pyramids, varying with the gender, caloric intake and other factors of the individual, there is a lot of explaining to do. So much so that USDA pretty much is referring people to a web site to figure out and then download which personalized pyramid is best for them. We just scratched the surface in our related news story.

In the midst of all the naysaying following the pyramid’s release came a positive news release from one food company. Titled “General Mills announces major nutrition education initiative in conjunction with new food guide pyramid,” it promised “to advance nutrition education in America by announcing that more than 100 million boxes of its Big G cereal brands will carry the new USDA food guide pyramid, now known as MyPyramid, along with important nutritional information.”

Admittedly, General Mills is seizing on a great marketing opportunity in the new interest in whole grains, as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans released back in January. The new pyramid emphasizes the need for increased grain and especially whole grain consumption, as evidenced by the beige grains bar being the widest vertical line in the pyramid (in explanatory notes, it says to make at least half your grain consumption whole grains). Plus, Big G got the jump on everybody when it announced back in October it was reformulating all its cereals to use whole grains.

But with nine out of 10 people in the U.S. not yet eating the minimum recommended daily amount of whole grain (6 oz. — about three servings — every day in the new recommendations), according to General Mills, some behavior modification is in order. Whole grains can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and may help with weight maintenance.

"We want to help communicate these important messages by using some of the best real estate there is," said John Haugen, vice president of Big G cereal marketing at General Mills. "The cereal box is one of the most read items in the home, read on average 2.6 times. With cereal consumed in 93 percent of American households and with the information on more than 100 million General Mills cereal boxes, this is a powerful step forward in nutrition education."

In the days that followed the release of the new pyramid, several groups, most of them associations representing a particular type of food, came out with supportive statements. The United Soybean Board latched onto the vegetable recommendations, including the support for fiber; Dairy Management Inc. pointed out the important role milk plays; the Hazelnut Council pointed out the kudos for nuts in the “Meat & Beans” slice. Personally, I think fish got shorted, but the National Fisheries Institute nevertheless pointed it out, also under Meat & Beans.

But no individual food companies.

Come on, Dean Foods. Knowledgeable observers say the dairy industry fought hard to keep its slice of the pyramid, and now it’s got a pretty wide one. Wide, too, is the billboard on at least paper milk cartons; and plastic jugs can carry additional paper labels. So why doesn’t Dean, far and away the country’s largest dairy, promise its carton to the pyramid?

Along with grains, fruits and vegetables gained ground in the new guidelines. Del Monte and Dole play on both sides of that fence. Why not share a little of your labels with the pyramid?

Tyson? We put you on our cover. Can’t you put the pyramid on some of your packages?

A “one-size-fits-all” solution does not appear to work, as the secretary of agriculture said in unveiling the pyramid. Explaining 12 solutions is going to take some effort, but the end result will be worth it.

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