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At Your Service

Sunday, February 3, 2013

How government nutrition advice impacts consumers

The Amber Waves electronic magazine is an USDA publication by the Economic Research Service (ERS). This agency is the main source of economic information and research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Located in Washington, DC, with approximately 350 employees, the mission of ERS is to inform and enhance public and private decision-making on economic and policy issues related to agriculture, food, natural resources, and rural development. To accomplish this mission, highly trained economists and social scientists develop and distribute a broad range of economic and other social science information and analysis.

I have been a big fan of this electronic magazine and I was reviewing several of the articles related to nutrition and consumer choices.

An article in the December 2012 addition caught my eye. The title is "Dietary Guidelines Have Encouraged Some Americans To Purchase More Whole-Grain Bread."

Since its inception in 1980, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have provided consumers with science-based nutritional principles and advice for making healthy food choices. So far, there is little evidence that Americans' overall diet quality has improved in response to updated Dietary Guidelines issued every 5 years. However, a recent study by ERS finds that, for whole grains, the 2005 Guidelines were able to nudge consumption patterns in the direction desired by the public health community--at least for some consumers.

This study shows that Americans have decreased the purchase of refined grain bread by 3 percent and increased the purchase of whole-grain bread by 14 percent. There are two reasons for this change. The first is that the Dietary Guidelines offered specific and easy to follow advice. In addition, there was an incentive for manufacturers to reformulate their products in anticipation of increased demand for whole-grain products, and this may have created a spillover benefit. When manufacturers ramped up their whole-grain production, they likely created some scale economies, lowering per unit production costs and thereby lowering the relative price of whole-grain bread for all consumers.

An article in the September 2012 edition, entitled "Trans Fats Are Less Common in New Food Products." Trans fats (or trans fatty acids) are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. Another name for trans fats is "partially hydrogenated oils." Look for them on the ingredient list on food packages.

Some doctors consider trans fats to be the most dangerous fat.

Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Eating trans fats increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. It?s also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Because of this, the Federal Government has taken two policy approaches to help Americans reduce trans fats in their diets: publicizing the health risks from eating trans fats and requiring food manufacturers to label the trans fat content of foods.

Beginning in 2006, Nutrition Facts panels on food labels had to list the amount of trans fats in the food. The health risks of trans fats and regulatory proposals and rules to eliminate trans fats from food products have been widely covered in the media.

Using a new products data base, researchers calculated the average trans fat content of new (including reformulated) products introduced during 2005-10.

The five product categories with the highest average trans fat content for new products were bakery products; prepared meals; desserts; processed fish, meat, and egg products; and snacks.

In 2005, when the declaration of trans fat content was voluntary and trans fat levels were most likely underestimated, average trans fat content ranged from 0.49 grams per serving for the 426 new bakery products to 0.13 grams per serving for new processed fish, meat, and egg products.

One point of interest is that if you see 0 grams of fat on the food facts label on the product, it does not really mean that it has zero grams. By law, manufacturers can have .5 grams or less per serving.

By 2010, the 703 new bakery products introduced that year contained an average of just 0.13 grams of trans fat per serving, a decline of 73 percent from amounts in 2005.

Trans fat levels for new prepared meals declined by 54 percent between 2005 and 2010, and levels for new processed fish, meat, and egg products and new snacks fell about 51 percent. The average trans fat content for new desserts was 0.23 grams per serving in 2005, dipped to 0.08 grams in 2007, and rose to 0.12 grams in 2010. Lower levels of trans fats in new food products make it easier for consumers to comply with dietary advice to keep trans fat intake as low as possible.

New products without trans fats, including those that have front-of-package statements and those that do not have them, are likely to be lower in calories, sodium, and saturated fats than those containing trans fats.

This suggests that food companies, when reformulating products to avoid trans fats, are generally substituting healthier ingredients for trans fats.

So there is hope that Americans will switch to healthier foods. It would certainly have an impact on chronic diseases and lower total health costs.

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At Your Service
At Your Service