USDA Trades In Old Pyramid for a New Plate

I suspect Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was overstating things a bit yesterday when unveiling the long-awaited icon to accompany the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“It’s an important day for the entire country,” he declared, as he prepared to introduce the USDA’s new MyPlate. The icon replaces the old MyPyramid.

Well, important for dietitians, public health advocates and those interested in nutrition, maybe. I suspect more Americans were following Weinergate.

For the most part, MyPlate got a warm reception. First, it’s simple to understand. Anyone can glance at it and know half your plate should be fruits and vegetables, a quarter grains (mostly whole) and a quarter protein– with a small serving of dairy on the side. That’s a huge improvement over the old MyPyramid, which was widely criticized for being confusing and, basically, useless. That’s it here. Do you have any idea what those multicolored stripes mean? That’s OK, no one else did either.

Is it perfect? No, these things never are. As Adrienne Youdim, M.D., medical director of the Cedars-Sinai Weight Loss Clinic in Los Angeles noted, what you gain in simplicity you sacrifice in detail. Still, if people get the message on the proper proportions of fruits, veggies, grains and protein, that’s enough of a step in the right direction. In perfect world, she added, MyPlate would incorporate the message of physical activity, much like the stick figure did in the old pyramid.

Even Food Politics‘ Marion Nestle, who’s a tough critic of the USDA, is (mostly) satisfied with MyPlate. “My one quibble? Protein,” she notes in her blog. “Protein is a nutrient, not a food. Protein is not exactly lacking in American diets. The average American consumes twice the protein needed.  Grains and dairy, each with its own sector, are important sources of protein in American diets.”

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine PCRM raises another issue. While MyPlate emphasizes fruits and vegetables–and looks a lot (OK, almost exactly) like the PCRM’s own Power Plate–it’s at odds with current federal agricultural subsidies.

“The plate icon advises Americans to limit high-fat products like meat and cheese, but the federal government is subsidizing these very products with billions of tax dollars and giving almost no support to fruits and vegetables,” says PCRM staff nutritionist Kathryn Strong, M.S., R.D.

More than 60% of federal subsidies go toward promoting meat and dairy. Fruits and vegetables get less than 1%. So while the government is touting fruits and vegetables on half MyPlate, it’s doing little to fund promoting those foods.

Sure, if you visit the website, you can click around the plate to learn the different foods that make up the plate, and there are some improvements there. In “Proteins,” beans and peas, nuts and seeds, and seafood suggestions overwhelm those for meat and poultry. “Dairy” includes soy milk as an alternative (though as a bit of an afterthought), and “Grains” clearly favors whole grains over refined varieties.

But how many Americans are going to spend time trolling around, anyway? Harvey Hartman, of the market research firm Hartman Group, which does wonderful research on consumer behavior, has long maintained that plates, pyramids and other government-created public-education efforts are a waste of time.

“We were among the first to warn that the last refresh of the food pyramid in 2005 would prove unsuccessful and likely have no effect on obesity rates,” he notes. “We knew this because the pyramid was particularly confusing and people do not eat according to scientific principles. But more foundationally, because our research always shows that most people are not interested in this source of information, there is little reason to expect any correlated behavioral change.”

MyPlate is unlikely to fare any better.

“Once again, the powers-that-be refused to consider the historical evidence (i.e. that these things never work) and pursue more innovative approaches,” he says. “Rather than thrusting a plate upon us, why not remove all vending machines from schools? It’s always struck me as bizarre that we would let our children eat from machines.”

What’s your take on plates and pyramids? Do you care? In the meantime, try this Obscenely Good Eggplant-Ricotta Tartine. It’s healthy, delicious food on a plate. Your plate.

GE and Organic: Is Coexistence Possible?

The first two months of 2011 have been busy for the USDA when it comes to approving genetically engineered (GE, also called genetically modified organisms or GMO) crops. At the end of January, the agency deregulated GE Roundup Ready alfalfa, followed a week later by the partial deregulation of GE sugar beets and deregulation of GE ethanol corn a week after that. Approval of GE alfalfa, in particular, created a firestorm of controversy in the organic community.

ge-gmo-organic-coexistIn December, when the USDA was considering deregulating GE alfalfa, the agency organized a “coexistence forum” for the various stakeholders to discuss measures to safeguard organic and non-GE conventional alfalfa while at the same time allowing farmers to grow the GE stuff. Attendees included representatives from the USDA, members of NGOs (among them, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for Food Safety and the Cornucopia Institute), industry groups (such as the Biotech Industry Organization and the Organic Trade Association) and industry members (Monsanto, alongside Stonyfield Farm, Whole Foods and others).

At the time, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made it clear that biotech crops are here to stay. “We see biotechnology as a key component of U.S. ag production, and a powerful means to increase agricultural productivity, as well as sustainability and resilience to climate,” he told attendees. “At the same time, there must be a recognition that the organic sector is one of the fastest-growing segments of U.S. agriculture.”

Participation of some of the organic industry’s biggest players led Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, to label them “Monsanto’s Minions.” Stonyfield’s CEO Gary Hirshberg countered that since the USDA was going to deregulate GE alfalfa anyway, it was crucial for organic interests to be represented as the USDA considers coexistence. That didn’t stop Hirshberg and others who were at the USDA meeting from later signing the “We Stand United in Opposition of GE Alfalfa” petition, which calls the USDA “a rogue agency in its regulation of biotech crops.”

When the USDA approved GE alfalfa, it released its plans to foster “constructive coexistence.” Measures include steps to preserve the purity of non-GE alfalfa seed, developing stewardship practices to prevent contamination and “assisting cooperation” among GE and non-GE alfalfa producers. There’s no timeline attached to these measures, and it’s unclear what kind of role the USDA might play in monitoring and enforcing any policies beyond research, advice and voluntary audits–or how those policies might apply to other crops. In the meantime millions of acres are being planted with GE crops. For example, the USDA is allowing GE sugar beets to be planted even though the final Environmental Impact Statement isn’t due until next year.

One question that stands out is whether such coexistence is practical.

“That depends on what you mean by ‘coexistence,’” says Fred Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and a member of the board of directors for the Organic Seed Alliance. He also participated in the USDA’s December meeting on GE alfalfa. “If one means that both varieties (GMO and organic) can exist on the same planet without any cross-contamination, then the answer is clearly is ‘no.’ One cannot isolate a living organism in nature.

“Proposing coexistence based on no contamination isn’t feasible, since that genie is already out of the bottle.”

Kirschenmann says that leaves “coexistence” based on planting crops far enough apart to minimize contamination, compensating organic farmers whose crops are contaminated by GMOs and, of course, the cooperation of all the concerned parties. But just the idea of planting GE crops far enough apart is daunting.

“There would need to be strict distance between crops,” says Kirschenmann. “Such distances would need to be established for each crop–insect- and wind-pollinated crops would need much greater distances.” (That would certainly be the case for alfalfa, which is pollinated by bees, as well as corn–another common GE crop–which is wind-pollinated.) Farm equipment, as well as processing, manufacturing and seed facilities, would also need to be strictly segregated, he adds.

The recent deregulation of GE ethanol corn raises additional concerns. That corn is approved for industrial use for biofuel, but it could easily contaminate food corn crops. “There is no way to protect food corn crops from contamination by ethanol corn,” says Margaret Mellon, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program. “Even with the most stringent precautions, the wind will blow and standards will slip. In this case, there are no required precautions.”

Albert Straus, president of Straus Family Creamery, knows firsthand how easily organic crops can be tainted. In a statement protesting the deregulation of GE alfalfa, he noted that “because bees routinely fly up to five miles from their hives to pollinate plants, it is impossible for farmers to prevent contamination of organic or conventional alfalfa crops from genetically modified pollen.” And because alfalfa is the key feed for organic dairy cows, that threatens the integrity of all organic dairy products.

Straus Family Creamery began voluntarily testing organic cattle feed for GMOs in 2006 after discovering it had purchased some organic feed that had been inadvertently contaminated.

GE crops come with serious environmental and potential health concerns. But ultimately, says Kirschenbaum, the issue boils down to property law. “Property rights work two ways: In this case, farmers have the right to use their property to grow GMO crops. On the other hand, organic and non-GMO farmers have the right to grow crops without being interfered with by GMO crops. Courts have waxed and waned on such issues, so it’s difficult to tell how the Supreme Court would rule.”

What You Can Do

Oppose GE crops? Here are some steps you can take:

  • Buy certified-organic food. According to the USDA’s standards, certified organic food cannot contain GMOs.
  • Look for products with the Non-GMO Project Verified seal. These have been tested and vetted by a third party to be GMO-free. (This is the verification program used by Straus Family Creamery.)
  • Support the Center for Food Safety’s legal fund to challenge GE crops in the courts.They’re suing the USDA for deregulating alfalfa.
  • Lodge your protest with the White House through Food & Water Watch.
  • Contact your representatives in the House and Senate to voice your opposition to GMOs. It’s working in the case of GE salmon–in recent weeks, bills to block the fish have been introduced in the House and Senate. [UPDATE: As of October 2013, it looks like the FDA is set to approve sale of the GE fish.]
  • Let your favorite retailers know that you prefer GMO-free food. Consumer activism may go a long way toward keeping GMOs off store shelves, as in the case of Friends of the Earth’s Campaign for GE-Free Seafood.

2/10/11 Nourishing News Roundup

Our weekly roundup of links to headlines we think you’ll want to read…

How Grass-Fed Beef Can Reduce Global Warming

(Photo by Scott Bauer/USDA)

We’ve talked about the nutritional and animal-welfare benefits of grass-fed beef and bison. Grass-fed meat may help the environment, too, according to the Union of Concern Scientists’ new report, “Raising the Steaks: Global Warming and Pasture-Raised Beef Production in the United States.” As the report notes, beef production generates about one-third of the United States’ global-warming emissions, including 18% of our methane emissions. The report illustrates the best practices to raise cattle while reducing emissions, such as the importance of nutrient-dense forage for grazing cattle.

Bittman on Dietary Guidelines

We reported on the recently (and finally) released 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In his opinion piece for The New York Times, Mark Bittman ponders why the guidelines dance around the more important–and simpler–message that could have a genuine impact on America’s health: Eat real food.

Smart Shrimp

Like food writer Barry Estabrook (and Forrest Gump’s best friend, Bubba), I’m a sucker for shrimp. But as he notes in his Politics of the Plate blog, finding sustainably sourced shrimp can be tricky. That’s why he was so happy to discover sustainable British Columbia spot prawns. The only drawback: You’ll probably have to visit Canada to enjoy them, since the locals gobble most of the seasonal catch. Not a bad excuse to visit BC…that shrimp would be wonderful paired with a lovely Okanagan Valley wine!

More GE News

Last week, we reported on infighting among the organic community over the USDA’s decision to fully deregulate genetically engineered alfalfa while promoting the peaceful coexistence of organic and conventional (including GE) crops. As that hot debate continues in the the organic community, there’s been yet more news on GE topics. Last Friday, the USDA announced the partial deregulation of GE sugar beets, allowing farmers to plant that GE crop before the final Environmental Impact Statement is released in 2012. As Rodale reports, it’s a controversial move, to say the least. Meanwhile, Care2 reports that Mexico’s Interministerial Commission on Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms has put planting of Monsanto’s GE corn on hold pending more tests. And Bill Marler’s blog Food Safety News reports on a pair of bipartisan congressional bills to ban GE salmon. Apparently not all American lawmakers share the current administration’s biotech-friendly stance.

What intrigues us in all of this is the USDA’s insistence that GE and organic crops can coexist. We’re working on a story examining what that entails and whether it’s a realistic–and practical–proposal.

The (Fairly) Simple Message in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines

Do you eat your fruits and vegetables? Favor whole grains? Cook most of your meals at home? You’ve already hit most of the high points in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services.

In our previous stories about the advisory committee’s suggestions for the guidelines, we made some predictions based on recommendations that lined up with NOURISH Evolution’s core principles of sound nutrition, eco-clean eating, mindful meals and kitchen tips. Let’s see how we fared:

Prediction: Shift to a Plant-Based Diet

Outcome: One of the main goals of the 2010 guidelines is to encourage Americans to choose nutrient-dense foods, including fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, and whole grains. In one of the most tangible takeaway messages, the guidelines instruct us to “make half your plate fruits and vegetables.” That’s pretty straightforward.

The guidelines also cover the benefits of plant-centered eating patterns, including DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), the Mediterranean diet and even vegetarian and vegan diets.

Diary has a prominent place in the guidelines (no surprise there, given the dairy industry’s influence on the USDA), though with the recommendation to choose low-fat (1%) or fat-free variations. This is to help ensure we all get adequate calcium, vitamin D and potassium. The guidelines cite moderate evidence linking milk with bone and heart health. However, some experts question the benefit of dairy and other animal-based proteins for bone health.

The new guidelines give ample play to alternative protein sources, encouraging everyone to eat more seafood, soy products, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. They even recommend replacing some lean meat and poultry with seafood.

Our take: We like the emphasis on plant foods, plus the tangible advice for how that plays out on your plate. It’s nice to see plant-based and seafood proteins given prominent play alongside meat and poultry in the variety of suggested options.

Prediction: Increase Environmentally Sustainable Food

Outcome: The advisory committee called for increasing environmentally sustainable agriculture and aquaculture but stopped short of recommending organics specifically. Indeed, the final guidelines include this statement: “Develop and expand safe, effective, and sustainable agriculture and aquaculture practices to ensure availability of recommended amounts of healthy foods to all segments of the population.”

Our take: We would have liked more specifics on what they mean by “safe, effective and sustainable.” Moreover, the new guidelines have a specific recommendation to eat 8 ounces of seafood per week, which will serve to increase demand for fish. It would have been helpful to include the advice to choose sustainable seafood.

Prediction: Eat Attentively

Outcome: The advisory committee called for Americans to be mindful eaters, but we didn’t think this advice would make it into the final guidelines because it would prove too hard to put into specific terms. We were wrong! The final guidelines’ address many aspects of food behavior, including tips ranging from tracking calories to paying close attention to feelings of hunger, noting when you tend to overeat, and not eating while doing other activities like watching TV. Other strategies that fall under the mindful-eating category include planning meals, using smaller plates to minimize portions and reading food labels.

Our take: We’re pleasantly surprised to see the guidelines address this issue in such specific terms.

Prediction: Learn to Cook, America

Outcome: Previous incarnations of the Dietary Guidelines have struck me as scolding. The advisory committee’s recommendations were no different, taking Americans to task for eating too many meals out. But they also favored including recommendations to improve cooking literacy, including safe food handling and teaching kitchen skills in schools. That’s advice the final guidelines has taken.

A substantial section addresses the need to overhaul the cultural environment to support healthier individual food choices. These measures include improving access to healthy food, working with food producers to develop better options and supporting healthy-eating legislative measures. Then there’s little nugget:

“Empower individuals and families with improved nutrition literacy, gardening, and cooking skills to heighten enjoyment of preparing and consuming healthy foods.”

Our take: We heartily support any measure that encourages people to enjoy cooking–and eating. The more comfortable you are in the kitchen, the more control you have over what you eat and the easier it is to make healthy, seasonal and sustainable food part of your diet.

2/3/11 Nourishing News Roundup

Happy Year of the Rabbit!

That’s right–today marks the start of 4709 in the lunar Chinese calendar and the Year of the Rabbit. After the wild ride that was the Year of the Tiger, this year promises a chance to stop and catch your breath. Celebrate with good-luck foods like tangerines and oranges, which you can turn into a tasty–and festive–granita.

Where Shouldn‘t You Buy Seafood?

Sustainable seafood expert and author of Sustainable Sushi Casson Trenor reveals four places where you shouldn’t purchase seafood, starting with retail giant Costco. AlterNet

USDA, You Suck

Sheesh, we’re starting to sound like a broken record, yammering on about the USDA continuing to say it supports organics and sustainability. But in an actions-speak-louder-than-words move last week, the agency announced its decision to fully deregulate Monsanto’s Roundup-ready genetically engineered alfalfa. “After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. Guess that depends how you define “safe.” The Center for Food Safety notes widespread use of the GE alfalfa will increase herbicide use (and give rise to herbicide-resistant weeds) and potentially contaminate organic crops. And the Organic Consumers Association notes that in a case of very strange bedfellows, Whole Foods Market, Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farm have come out in support of USDA’s latest move with the caveat that the government fine Monsanto if (and when) organic crops are contaminated. We’ll see how that one nets out.

Nourishing Issues 2011: Will Nutrition Get Real?

This is part 3 in our Nourishing Issues 2011 series, in which we’re spotlighting a few key topics: food safety, local food and nutrition. The list could be much longer, of course, but these are three biggies that we’re sure to revisit throughout the year.

Hmmm. I’d hoped to have some actual news to report in this post, since the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were due to be released, well, last year. These guidelines, issued jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the department of Health and Human Services, are updated every five years. They’re a big deal, because they influence public health policy, including programs like school lunches. The finalized 2010 guidelines may be released by the end of this month. Or maybe not.

As we reported last fall, the USDA and HHS are evaluating the recommendations made by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) of experts and based on all the latest nutrition research. As we noted then, many of the recommendations were in line with NOURISH Evolution’s core values of sound nutrition, eco-clean food, mindful meals and cooking skills. As for the finalized guidelines, here’s what we anticipate the guidelines will include, based on the committee’s recommendations:

Predicted guideline: Eat more fruits and vegetables.

Our take: Duh, this has been part of every version of the dietary guidelines since they were first published in 1980. Trouble is, government recommendations do little to encourage Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables–consumption rates have been flat since 1999.

But we don’t expect the finalized guidelines to go along with the advisory committee’s call for a shift shift toward a more plant-based diet with only moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry and eggs. That’s excellent advice, but it’s hard to imagine the USDA will overlook influence from the powerful beef, poultry and egg lobbies, which will want to keep their foods on the American plate.

Predicted guideline: Reduce the recommended intake of sodium to 1,500 milligrams per day (that’s a little over 5/8 teaspoon of salt) for the general population, down from 2,300 milligrams (about 1 teaspoon) in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines.

Our take: Because the evidence is so strong, we think the final guidelines will lower the recommended daily allotment of sodium.

Predicted guideline: Americans need to get off the SoFAS (solid fats and added sugars, that is).

Our take: We think the final guidelines will urge Americans to minimize their consumption of solid fats (butter, cheese, fatty cuts of meat and the like) and added sugars, both of which comprise more than a third of the American diet and contribute to our ballooning obesity rates.

But here again, the USDA will continue to deliver a conflicting message–on the one hand, urging moderation and a healthy diet while on the other working with the industry to create programs that promote consumption of the very foods contributing to our nation’s health problems. Cheese, anyone?

Will we be right? We’ll revisit this when the 2010 guidelines are–finally–released. At the very least, we’re hoping the new guidelines also come with a fresh new graphic. The 2005 guidelines came with a confusing color-coded pyramid that no one liked.

Also in this series:
What Will It Take to Make Our Food Safe?
The Evolution of Local

1/13/11 Nourishing News Roundup

Proposed New School Lunch Standards

Today, the USDA unveiled new school lunch nutrition standards (the first upgrade in 15 years). Among the proposed changes: more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat and skim dairy products.

Jamie’s Cold Reception

We’re enjoying a balmy, sunny week here in Los Angeles, but we’ll bet British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is finding it chilly. He recently arrived in town to film season 2 of “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” for ABC. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles Times reports, he was shut out by the Los Angeles Unified School District (they didn’t want to participate in a reality TV circus), so Oliver has opened a branch of Jamie’s Kitchen in Westwood to offer free cooking classes to the public. Ouch! But upscale Westwood seems an odd choice of location, since Los Angeles has its fair share of food deserts that could really use Oliver’s help, but, heck, maybe students from UCLA will drop by for a meal and a cooking lesson. Still, we think Oliver’s boyish charm–the man is willing to run around in a giant pea pod costume, for crissakes!–will melt the hearts of L.A.’s blase, celebrity-chef-fatigued residents.

Research We Love

We’re big fans of the culinary insights by the market research firm The Hartman Group. Among their fave trends for 2011: Spanish smoked paprika (which they liken to vegetarian bacon in flavor and predict will dethrone chipotle chile), 00 flour (how did they know I wanted to experiment with this superfine flour for pizza crust?), hyper-local foraged fare, and avid interest in vegetable cookery.

Time to Clean Your Dishwasher?

Gee, I always figured the dishwasher itself was getting a decent scrub along with the dishes. Not so, according to Apartment Therapy. A regular cleaning helps it run more efficiently.

The True Costs of Farming

Nicolette Hahn Niman (of Niman Ranch) weighs in on the true cost of large-scale agri-business vs. sustainable farming. Los Angeles Times

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

We’ve noted that the USDA has made impressive strides supporting the growth of organics. But don’t expect the agency to turn its back on conventional and GMO agriculture anytime soon. In a statement regarding the environmental impact of genetically engineered alfalfa, agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made it clear the USDA believes there’s room in the field for all kinds of cultivation.

“We have seen rapid adoption of biotechnology in agriculture, along with the rise of organic and non-genetically engineered sectors over the last several decades,” Vilsack said in December. “While the growth in all these areas is great for agriculture, it has also led, at times, to conflict or, at best, an uneasy coexistence between the different ways of growing crops. We need to address these challenges and develop a sensible path forward for strengthening coexistence of all segments of agriculture in our country. All are vital and a part of rural America’s success. All should be able to thrive together.”

Top Chefs in Crappy Little Kitchens

In New York, even top-name chefs often have to make do with cramped home kitchens (New York Times). Feel their pain? Check out our story about the practical space-saving tips in Jennifer Schaertl’s cheeky book Gourmet Meals in Crappy Little Kitchens.

The USDA’s Twisted Message

While researching an article about veganism for this month’s issue of Natural Health magazine, I interviewed Neal Barnard, M.D. When it comes to vegan matters, all roads eventually lead to Barnard, who’s the founder of the vegan advocacy group, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

I confessed that, no, I’m not a vegan.

“What’s holding you back?” he asked.

My deep love of cheese. I couldn’t–still can’t–imagine a life without Parmigiano-Reggiano, cheddar, goat, Manchego…

“You know, cheese really is addicting,” he countered. “At 70% fat, it’s the nutritional equivalent of Vaseline, and I really think it’s the reason for so many tubby kids these days.”

He also observed that Americans eat an insane amount of cheese–about 30 pounds per per year, per person. “Americans eclipsed the French in cheese consumption some years ago,” Barnard added.

The USDA–the same government agency responsible (jointly with the Department of Health and Human Service) for developing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans–is working with fast-food companies to develop new ways to encourage Americans to eat more cheese, which we all know is contributing to our collective obesity epidemic.

When Barnard says cheese is addictive, he’s not exaggerating. He devotes a chapter to cheese in his book, Breaking the Food Seduction: The Hidden Reasons Behind Food Cravings (St. Martins), explaining how cheese contains concentrated levels of morphine-like opiates that occur naturally in cow’s milk (similar opiates are found in human breast milk, too–they help calm an infant). He also discusses USDA-funded programs to boost cheese consumption, and an article in The New York Times this weekend–“While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales”–details how this government/industry relationship works.

That’s right, the same government agency responsible (jointly with the Department of Health and Human Service) for developing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is working with fast-food companies to develop new ways to encourage Americans to eat more cheese, which we all know is contributing to our collective obesity epidemic. On the one hand the USDA shakes its finger at us for being too fat, while on the other it works with Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Subway and other fast-food chains to develop tempting new menu items featuring cheese.

Where’s the moderation in Pizza Hut’s Ultimate Cheese Pizza, which features a pound of cheese per pie and was promoted with funds from the USDA’s Dairy Management marketing entity?

The USDA wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, it maintains that, eaten in moderation, cheese has a place in a healthy diet. We agree with that. A sprinkling of feta on your salad is moderation. But where’s the moderation in, say, Pizza Hut’s Ultimate Cheese Pizza, which features a pound of cheese per pie and was promoted with funds from the USDA’s Dairy Management marketing entity?

We reported recently about the upcoming Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, which the USDA and HHS are finalizing now. Those guidelines are important, since they influence key programs like standards for school lunches. As the Advisory Committee’s report notes, the amount of saturated fat Americans eat is a key concern, and cheese is the top contributor of saturated fat in the American diet. We’ll be curious to see how prominently cheese is featured in the final version of the the guidelines.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines: What’s ahead from the government?

You may not turn to the government as your best source for nutrition advice, but the upcoming Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 will influence what you eat in one way or another. These are the “official” recommendations, and they’re updated every five years. They shape everything from food labeling to public food programs, including school lunches.

The USDA and Department of Health and Human Services, which issue the guidelines jointly, appointed an advisory committee of top researchers in fields of nutrition, medicine, and food safety and technology to evaluate the latest scientific evidence and submit their recommendations in June. Now the USDA and HHS are considering the committee’s proposals, along with public comments (from public-health advocates to food-commodity special interests), and will release the final guidelines later this year.

As with past Dietary Guidelines, this report’s recommendations are aimed at turning our nation’s tide of obesity. Too many Americans are overweight or obese yet “undernourished in several key nutrients,” the committee notes.

What struck me, as I culled through the 700-page report, was how familiar their suggestions are, in that many of their recommendations reflect NOURISH Evolution’s four pillars.

Sound Nutrition: A plant-based diet

Since they were first published in 1980, every version of the dietary guidelines has advised Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables. But the latest recommendations take it a step further, advocating a “total-diet approach” emphasizing plant foods: “Shift food intake patterns to a more plant-based diet that emphasizes vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds.”

They also call for us to eat more seafood and fat-free and low-fat milk and milk products, while consuming lean meats, poultry and eggs in moderation.

It’ll be interesting to see how that recommendation is interpreted in the final 2010 guidelines released later this year. Lobbies, like the National Cattleman’s Beef Association and the National Chicken Council, exert tremendous influence on the USDA and may take a dim view of a government guideline for a plant-based diet.

Eco-Bites: Choose environmentally sustainable food

The committee also calls for increased “environmentally sustainable production of vegetables, fruits, and fiber-rich whole grains.”

However, it stops short of recommending organic agriculture as that sustainable solution, saying that the evidence is too limited to declare organically cultivated produce and grains nutritionally superior to conventional. They also conclude that conventional fare is safe, since it meets the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards. (On an encouraging note, however, the USDA appears to be boosting its support of organic and local farming.)

The report also recommends increasing sustainable aquaculture in order to meet the recommendation to eat two (4-ounce) servings of seafood per week. But it doesn’t delve into what constitutes responsible aquaculture, either from a health or environmental perspective. The genetically engineered salmon which is under consideration for approval by the FDA next week will prove an interesting in-the-trenches benchmark on how they’re really defining “sustainable” aquaculture.

While we’d like to see the recommended guidelines call for organic agriculture and responsible aquaculture in more specific terms, the fact that they even touch on these topics is remarkable.

Mindful Meals: Eat attentively

The committee acknowledges that there’s a huge disconnect between what experts, including the government, advise people to eat and what they really eat. “Americans must become mindful, or ‘conscious,’ eaters, that is, attentively choosing what and how much they eat,” the report notes.

We couldn’t agree more–if you don’t pay attention to what you eat, all the great nutrition advice in the world means nothing. But we’re curious how this will play out in the final guidelines, since mindful eating is an intangible, though crucial, part of the equation and the Dietary Guidelines tend to favor concrete advice.

Kitchen Tips: Learn to cook

It’s no surprise that the report scolds Americans for eating too much food away from home, noting that portion sizes have ballooned over the years as we eat out more often. Meals away from home are a big reason why an astonishing 35% of the American diet is now made up of solid (saturated) fats and added sugars–aka “SoFAS” in the report.

To remedy that, the proposed recommendations urge Americans to return to the kitchen to “improve nutrition literacy and cooking skills, including safe food handling skills, and empower and motivate the population, especially families with children, to prepare and consume healthy foods at home.”

They also call for nutrition, cooking and food safety to be incorporated into school curricula from preschool on.

We’re intrigued to see how this recommendation is interpreted in the final guidelines. Will they recommend a certain number of meals per week prepared from scratch at home? How do mindful eating and home cooking fit onto a pyramid? Or will they dispense with the Food Guide Pyramid–which was first introduced in 1995 and evolved into the confusing color-coded, personalized MyPyramid in 2005–in favor of a simpler, whole-food diet?

If they do latter, it will indeed look familiar … it would look a lot like the NOURISH Evolution approach.

USDA Steering Organics to the Center of the Plate

By Kurt Michael Friese

Among the many unique aspects of living in Iowa is our first-in-the-nation caucus system. Three years ago this week, on an outing with other campaign volunteers to plant trees for Earth Day, I had the honor of meeting a skinny, unknown, African-American, freshman senator from Illinois who had the audacity to believe he could be elected president. I had about three minutes to determine firsthand whether I wanted him to succeed.

So I asked him why, despite Iowa being an “agricultural state,” none of the candidates on either side were talking about agriculture. He told me he expected they would be, but that he preferred to talk about food and health. He then quoted chapter and verse from the previous weekend’s New York Times Sunday Magazine feature by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

OK, I liked this guy.

When Barack Obama won the Iowa Caucuses and the White House, I had high hopes that our agricultural system would change overnight. Then he appointed Iowa’s former governor, Tom Vilsack, to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and my heart sank. Vilsack’s an OK guy, but he always had a politician’s tendency to ride the fence, and any time he did something helpful for sustainable agriculture, he did two more things for Monsanto or Tyson.

Then Vilsack appointed Kathleen Merrigan as deputy secretary, and hope sprouted once again. Merrigan helped develop USDA’s organic labeling rules while head of the Agricultural Marketing Service from 1999-2001, and later ran the Tufts University Agriculture, Food and Environment Program that gave rise to the Community Food Security Coalition.

A recent San Francisco Chronicle article reports how Merrigan, speaking on behalf of the Obama Administration, “outlined a broad array of efforts to elevate organic and local farming to a prominence never seen before at the sprawling U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

After roughly six decades of being the U.S. Department of Agribusiness, Merrigan is trying to put the “culture” back in the department. Her goals include stricter enforcement of the USDA organic label, more support for the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program to connect local farmers with consumers, and improving access to fresh, healthy food in so-called “food deserts.” These goals may sound like dinner table talk for some circles, but they’re a radical departure from the past and a gutsy move on Merrigan’s part. As the Chronicle put it, “Big growers were not thrilled.”

While a few decades late and far from a panacea, the USDA’s apparent epiphany is welcome news for those who care about real food. I believe a few useful next steps might be:

  • Capping the subsidy system, both in terms of amounts doled out and who gets them. Today 75% of the subsidies in the U.S. go to the largest 10% of farms. In Texas, the No. 1 state in receiving federal subsidies, 72% of farms do not receive government subsidies at all.
  • Refocusing on healthy food and land stewardship. Today the crop that receives the most subsidies is corn/feed grain; more than twice any other crop. This has created an overabundance of cheap corn and contributed to skyrocketing high fructose corn syrup consumption (along with early onset diabetes and childhood obesity). It’s also why ground- and water-polluting CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) can afford to stay in business.
  • Moving the school lunch program out of the auspices of the USDA and into a joint program of the Department of Education and Health and Human Services. I believe this program should be administered by people who are inclined put the health and well-being of children before the interests of agribusiness giants.

While we’re at it, there are always a few cabinet shuffles around the presidential midterm. Why not elevate Ms. Merrigan to Mr. Vilsack’s job? We can always hope.

kurt-thumbKurt Michael Friese is the founding leader of Slow Food Iowa, serves on the Slow Food USA National Board of Directors, and is editor and publisher of the local food magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. He’s also Chef and co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay, a freelance food writer and photographer, and author of A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland.