USDA Dietary

What to Make of the New USDA Dietary Guidelines

The USDA’s recent release of its 2010 Dietary Guidelines (USDA Web Site – Dietary Guidelines) has generated a storm of media coverage and responses from every point of view.  What are food marketers to make of these new guidelines? What level of awareness is there among consumers and what opportunities does it present for food companies? This month, I’ll share the highlights and offer some perspective on what this means for marketers.

What’s New?

What makes these guidelines different from past iterations (they are released every five years) is the context in which they’ve been released, namely, the alarming growth in the incidence of obesity in the U.S. Two-thirds of the people in this country are overweight (one in three children is obese), setting them up for a higher risk of developing such chronic ills as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. (Check here for more details and statistics about the issue of obesity.)  As a result, the food industry has been under pressure to make changes in what it sells. First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, in particular, has received much attention.

Specific Recommendations

The guidelines stress reducing the intake of sodium, saturated fat (and trans fatty acids) and refined grains (particularly in foods that contain fat, added sugar, and sodium). They recommend increasing consumption of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk products, a variety of protein foods. For the first time, the guidelines recommend consumption of more seafood. Also on the recommended list: foods that contain more potassium, dietary fiber, calcium and vitamin D.  This iteration of the guidelines stands out from previous USDA recommendations by virtue of the focus on whole grain, dietary fiber and seafood.

Do Consumers Care?

How aware are consumers of these new recommendations – and will awareness translate into action?  The general population seems to demonstrate a growing awareness of healthier eating advice, but the new government guidelines really put some teeth into the recommendations. Media coverage has been extensive, which will certainly help bring new attention to the USDA guidelines. Marketers can also educate consumers about the guidelines as appropriate to their business.

Market Opportunities

Any food company that has not yet addressed whole-grain ingredients, the increased focus on protein, and/or the call for reduced sodium, fat and added sugar in their product development and product messaging would be well advised to consider doing so now. There may be an opportunity to add and promote fortified ingredients that include vitamin D, calcium, and potassium.  Seafood companies, in particular, have a huge opportunity to offer up their products as the solution for increasing seafood consumption in line with the USDA guidelines.  There’s a definite window of opportunity for focusing on new, healthier product benefits while consumers turn their attention to healthier eating in the wake of the release of the new federal guidelines.

Political Overtones – The USDA’s Conflicted Roles

The USDA is charged with promoting agricultural products as well as giving nutritional advice, which some see as a conflict of interest. Some media reports have claimed the guidelines are unduly influenced by political considerations. For example, see this report from nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle. The guidelines avoid identifying specific foods that people should eat less often (like meat and cheese), and instead use terms like cholesterol, saturated fats and solid fats without specifying which foods they are found in.  Some say this is due to the lobbying efforts of special interest groups like the National Cattleman’s Beef Association and the National Dairy Council.  The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington-based non-profit dedicated to preventative medicine and a vegan diet, is actually suing the USDA, claiming that the agency has too many conflicts of interest to issue clear and science-based dietary guidelines. The PCRM’s advocacy stance must be taken into account when considering the validity of their assertion. But they are not alone in challenging the USDA’s motives — see also the commentary from That’s Fit, Grist, and Healthy Eating Politics.

Key Takeaways

In summary, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines will be in force for the next five years and are focusing new attention on the issues of health and nutrition in America, specifically the goal of reducing record levels of obesity. The public is becoming more aware of recommendations for better eating and will continue to change consumption habits.  Here are the key takeaways for food marketers.

1.  The USDA Dietary Guidelines will affect the eating habits of consumers who are increasingly aware of the issue of rising obesity.

2.  Marketers should put more focus on products that incorporate whole-grain ingredients, have more dietary fiber, and offer reduced levels of sodium, saturated fat and other components that can contribute to obesity.

3.  Seafood companies should seize the opportunity to promote their products as a way to help consumers incorporate the recommended amount of seafood into their diet.

If you’d like to discuss the implications of the new USDA Guidelines on your food marketing strategies, please contact Nancy at

More Articles About the Dietary Guidelines

USDA Web Site – Dietary Guidelines

Mark Bittman’s Take on the Guidelines – New York Times Blog

Physician’s Group Sues USDA over Guidelines – Washington Post

How the New Guidelines Affect Food Technologists – IFT