America's relationship to food and health has certainly changed in the 20 years since Cooking Light debuted. Some of those changes may seem discouraging: Rates of obesity and diabetes have risen, food-borne illnesses frequently make headlines, and more people eat meals―often fast food―away from home than ever before.
Look more closely, though, and you'll see that the last two decades also have brought many innovations that make eating healthfully easier than ever. The 10 stories outlined here grabbed headlines for a reason. They document the tools available to help all of us make smarter food choices. And that implies hope for a more healthful future.
Building a new pyramid
When the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided to design an icon of good nutrition, it considered a variety of shapes and finally settled on the Food Guide Pyramid in 1992 (shown left). This was a departure from the four food groups (grains, meats, dairy, and fruits and vegetables) that had guided the public's eating habits for nearly half a century.
By the time the USDA announced plans to revamp it in 2003, some 80 percent of Americans recognized the pyramid. In 2005, the USDA unveiled a renovated pyramid, shortly after publication of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, on which it is based. Like the guidelines, the new pyramid advises Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables, consume three servings of low-fat dairy and three or more ounces of whole grains daily, and moderate intake of healthful fats, such as those found in olive oil, nuts, and avocados. A staircase reminds users to stay active. There's one more big change: The new food pyramid is Web-based, allowing users to tailor it to their individual needs based on age, sex, height, weight, and activity level at www.mypyramid.gov.
Nutrition facts come to light
Knowing the calorie content of your favorite packaged foods used to be a guessing game. That changed in 1994 when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required products to carry nutrition facts labels that listed the amount of calories, calories from fat, total and saturated fat, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar, cholesterol, sodium, vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron per serving.
Trans fat is the label's newest addition. Since the FDA began requiring food manufacturers to list this unhealthy fat in 2006, a number of products, from snack foods to margarine to frozen meals, have been reformulated to eliminate it. And many food companies have also begun to include additional information voluntarily, from potassium, a mineral key to blood pressure control, to heart-healthy fats, such as mono- and polyunsaturated.
Fifty-one percent of adults take advantage of the information nutrition labels provide, according to the Cooking Light 2007 Insight survey (up from 43 percent in our 2003 survey). Not only does reading labels reflect an interest in healthier eating, but studies show those who read nutrition facts labels are more likely to eat less of foods high in saturated fat than those who don't.