Food Design and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines: If Food Companies Comply, Will Consumers Buy?

February 8, 2011

By Cassandra A. Soltis

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 (the 2010 Dietary Guidelines), released by the federal government last week, were clearly drafted with the U.S. obesity epidemic in mind.  In addition to encouraging consumers to exercise more and reduce calorie consumption, the guidelines call on consumers to eat more nutrient-dense foods and beverages, reduce sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg (and to 1,500 mg for certain at-risk populations), consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol, limit foods containing synthetic sources of trans fats, and reduce the intake of calories from solid fats and added sugars. 

Although the 2010 Dietary Guidelines are intended to help form federal nutrition policy and provide guidance to be used by nutrition educators and health professionals, in effect, they are a signal to food manufacturers regarding the type and quality of food that consumers, whether currently health-conscious or not, may well be seeking. 

Recent federal and state government efforts to address the obesity epidemic have created fertile ground for healthy food product innovation.  For example, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorizes USDA to set nutritional standards for foods sold in schools, including vending machines, lunch lines, and school stores.  Combating the problem from a different angle, Alabama’s State Employees’ Health Insurance plan provides a financial incentive to workers taking steps to improve their blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose, or body mass index readings, if their measurements are deemed to put them “at risk.”  Employees can receive a health insurance discount if, for example, they participate in a wellness management program.

Creating palatable healthful foods that meet the criteria of the guidelines undoubtedly presents some food design challenges:  American consumers are known for their love of sugar-laden beverages and high-fat and high-sodium meals.  Nevertheless, consumer education about nutrition, combined with health insurance and other incentives to obtain (and maintain) a healthy weight, seems likely to lead more consumers to seek the types of foods described in the new dietary guidelines.  Food manufacturers that can make nutritious foods without sacrificing taste should benefit.