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Food-guide Redesign Has Experts Ruminating

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As the government begins a major overhaul of the Food Guide Pyramid, leading nutrition researchers and food industry experts are already weighing in with strong opinions on what should be done.

Critics have maintained that the pyramid, which was released in 1992, doesn't reflect the latest science.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began laying the groundwork for making changes. The agency proposed tailoring nutritional advice to people's age and activity level. Next spring, the USDA will begin discussing whether to revise the current pyramid or create a new graphic image altogether. The final image won't be released until early 2005.

Coincidentally, several nutrition researchers met at Harvard last week to discuss making the image and advice more fit for the times.

''We should think outside the triangle, and maybe a plate should be the symbol,'' says Alice Lichtenstein, a nutrition professor at Tufts University in Boston. A new image would better convey that there has been ''a change in the types of recommendations we are making,'' she says.

The main advantage of a new image is it would ''be a clear break from the past,'' says Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the loudest critics of the current pyramid's content.

But Judi Adams, president of the Wheat Foods Council, an industry group, says it would be a ''big mistake'' to change the familiar symbol. ''That would confuse consumers even more.''

The pyramid has good brand recognition; more than 80% of people say they are familiar with it. But ''we need to understand what that means,'' says Eric Hentges, executive director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. ''Does it mean people recognize it or that they understand it?''

It's unclear whether people know how to apply the pyramid to their diets, Lichtenstein says. Do they know how a slice of pizza fits into the servings in the different food groups?

Hentges says the agency will go ''into the consumer-testing phase, with no set agenda that the pyramid is where we are going to end up.''

The pyramid has always been a subject of much debate. Before it was released, officials tested graphics of a plate, a bowl and a shopping cart.

The next graphic needs to provide more specifics about making better food choices, says Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer group. ''For instance, for dairy products, you can have skim milk, whole milk, cheese. They all provide calcium, but some clog arteries, and some don't,'' she says.

She says fruits and vegetables should make up a larger portion of the graphic. Diets high in produce are usually lower in calories, because ''there are fewer land mines in those foods as far as saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories than in the other food groups,'' Wootan says.

Willett says the next image should advise people to:

* Select whole grains over the highly processed carbohydrates found in most cakes, cookies and crackers.

* Choose monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in olive, canola and other vegetable oils over saturated fats found in fatty meats and whole dairy products. Avoid trans fats.

* Select deep-green and colorful vegetables.

* Choose protein sources such as nuts, legumes, fish and poultry over red meat and processed meats.

He isn't convinced that the government's proposal to provide detailed serving information for 12 different calorie levels from 1,000 calories to 3,200 calories a day will be that useful. ''If the USDA is going to push a complicated scheme on the public, they should show evidence that it really works,'' Willett says.

But not everyone agrees with him. Adams says the science doesn't support eating more than three servings a day of whole grains. The rest can be enriched grains, she says. ''People are eating an average of one serving of whole grains a day. I'd be thrilled if they worked up to three servings.''

She supports the proposed emphasis on calories and activity.

Others say meat shouldn't be downplayed. There are plenty of lean cuts of beef that are low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and they are excellent sources of essential nutrients, including protein, zinc and vitamin B{-1}{-2}, says Mary Young of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Many say the information in the final image has to be based on solid science and needs to be tested on consumers to make sure it's clear and useful. Willett says he's willing to do a study using dietary information from participants in Harvard's Nurses Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study.

George Blackburn, associate director of the division of nutrition at Harvard Medical School, says he hopes the new messages go beyond the ''status quo'' and provide people with up-to-date nutrition information.

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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