The 10 most important nutrition stories of the last two decades (and the innovations
that will change the way we eat in the years to come).
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner

America's relationship to food and health has certainly changedin the 20 years since Cooking Light debuted. Some of those changesmay seem discouraging: Rates of obesity and diabetes have risen,food-borne illnesses frequently make headlines, and more people eatmeals―often fast food―away from home than everbefore.

Look more closely, though, and you'll see that the last twodecades also have brought many innovations that make eatinghealthfully easier than ever. The 10 stories outlined here grabbedheadlines for a reason. They document the tools available to helpall of us make smarter food choices. And that implies hope for amore healthful future.

Building a new pyramid

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided to designan icon of good nutrition, it considered a variety of shapes andfinally 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'seating habits for nearly half a century.

By the time the USDA announced plans to revamp it in 2003, some80 percent of Americans recognized the pyramid. In 2005, the USDAunveiled a renovated pyramid, shortly after publication of the 2005Dietary Guidelines, on which it is based. Like the guidelines, thenew pyramid advises Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables,consume three servings of low-fat dairy and three or more ounces ofwhole grains daily, and moderate intake of healthful fats, such asthose found in olive oil, nuts, and avocados. A staircase remindsusers to stay active. There's one more big change: The new foodpyramid is Web-based, allowing users to tailor it to theirindividual needs based on age, sex, height, weight, and activitylevel at

Nutrition facts come to light

Knowing the calorie content of your favorite packaged foods usedto be a guessing game. That changed in 1994 when the Food and DrugAdministration (FDA) required products to carry nutrition factslabels that listed the amount of calories, calories from fat, totaland saturated fat, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar,cholesterol, sodium, vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron perserving.

Trans fat is the label's newest addition. Since the FDA beganrequiring food manufacturers to list this unhealthy fat in 2006, anumber of products, from snack foods to margarine to frozen meals,have been reformulated to eliminate it. And many food companieshave also begun to include additional information¬voluntarily, from potassium, a mineral key to blood pressurecontrol, to heart-healthy fats, such as mono- andpolyunsaturated.

Fifty-one percent of adults take advantage of the informationnutrition labels provide, according to the Cooking Light 2007Insight survey (up from 43 percent in our 2003 survey). Not onlydoes reading labels reflect an interest in healthier eating, butstudies show those who read nutrition facts labels are more likelyto eat less of foods high in saturated fat than those whodon't.

Fish tales

The American Heart Association and U.S. Dietary Guidelinesadvise eating seafood twice a week. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids,it's good for your heart, brain, joints, and possibly your mood, asa number of studies suggest.

But what about mercury and other contaminants found in seafood?In 2004, the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency issuedseafood advisories for children under 12, pregnant and nursingwomen, and women who might become pregnant, suggesting they avoidshark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel. The warning filteredinto the general public's consciousness, and almost a third ofAmericans incorrectly came to believe the advice applied toeveryone and extended to all species of fish, according to a surveyby the Center for Food, Nutrition, and Agricultural Policy.

Fortunately, the confusion has been cleared. Last year, theInstitute of Medicine declared the health benefits of eatingseafood outweigh its risks, even for pregnant and nursingwomen.

Fat is not a four-letter word

For many people, straightening out the facts about fat has beentough. Long demonized-20 years ago, many grocery shelves werepacked with nonfat and low-fat products-mono- and polyunsaturatedfats are now embraced for their health benefits.

Research has shown that these fats help improve bloodcholesterol levels, either by cutting levels of low-densitylipoprotein (LDL), one of the most damaging forms of cholesterol,or by boosting levels of high density lipoprotein (HDL), aprotective type of cholesterol. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines madefat's revised role official, advising that a healthy intake couldrange from 20 percent of daily calories up to as much as 35percent.

Adding fat to your diet is still best tempered with caution. Atnine calories per gram, it contains more than twice the number ofcalories in protein or carbohydrates. Some types of fat are stillto be avoided-advice that hasn't changed for the past 20 years andisn't likely to change in the future. The AHA, the National HeartLung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), and the Dietary Guidelines allurge limiting both saturated and trans fats as a result of theirroles in promoting heart disease.

Whole grains go mainstream

Most grocery stores now stock whole-grain pasta, bread,crackers, cereals, and other products that 20 years ago were foundalmost exclusively in health-food stores. Whole grains boost foods'nutritive value, as they contain complex carbohydrates and fiber,which don't raise blood sugar levels the way foods made withrefined grains do.

Until 2006, there was no official government definition of wholegrains, which made it difficult for consumers to know that crackedwheat, stone-ground wheat, ordinary wheat flour, multigrain, andmany other seemingly whole-grain sounding products were not thereal thing.

Now, spotting whole-grain products is easier, thanks to stampsissued by the Whole Grains Council, a nonprofit group developed in2003 to help identify whole-grain foods. Since then, more than1,000 products from nearly 100 companies have qualified to use thestamps.

Food for what ails you

Food provides nourishment, and it also can help prevent healthproblems.

In developed countries, high blood pressure is a common problemof aging. But in populations where sodium intake is low, high bloodpressure is much less common with age. To see if food could make adifference, the NHLBI launched the Dietary Approaches to StopHypertension Study in 1997. The results proved that just two weeksof eating a diet low in so¬dium, rich in fruits andvegetables, fiber, whole grains, and modest amounts of healthfulfats can significantly lower blood pressure. A follow-up studypublished in 2001 showed that DASH could help lower blood pressurefor everyone, even for those who did not yet have hypertension.

More recently, researchers at the University of Toronto reportedthat a group of foods, each known to lower blood cholesterollevels, can together cut it as much as some prescriptionmedications. Dubbed the Portfolio Eating Plan, the regimen includesalmonds, soy, fiber, and margarine fortified with plant stanols andsterols (found in products such as Take Control or Benecol). Sincethe FDA approved for¬tification with thesecholesterol-lowering substances in 2000, a growing number ofproducts include them, including ¬orange juice andchocolates.

Drink to good health

In 1987, we drank water from faucets, fountains, and coolers.The coffee we sipped was often brewed at home or purchased forabout 50 cents a cup. Now most of us drink water from bottles anddon't blink at paying $3 or more for a cup of fancy flavoredcoffee. No wonder beverages have become a major source of calories,accounting for 20 percent of daily intake.

To help consumers recognize healthier choices, a team ofUniversity of North Carolina scientists developed a beverageguidance system in 2006. The leading drink choice to quench thirstis water, followed by such low-calorie choices as tea, milk (nonfator skim), and diet drinks, then juices and sports drinks.

Alcohol has made intriguing health inroads in the past 20 years.Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, research repeatedly observed thatpeople who consume alcohol in moderation-one drink daily for women,two for men-had lower rates of heart disease.

Variety is the spice of life

Repeated studies have found people who take large doses ofsingle nutrients-vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C-aren't anyhealthier than people who don't. In some cases, large doses mayactually be harmful.

For example, Finnish researchers found in the mid 1990s thatsmokers actually increased their risk of lung cancer when they tookbeta-carotene supplements. In January, Australian researchersreported that vitamin E increased blood pressure and heart rate indiabetics.

Research also suggests that relying on dietary supplements maynot fully cover your nutritional bases. In 2006, a panel convenedat the National Institutes of Health concluded there is not enoughevidence to recommend for or against taking multivitamins.

Time and again, research points to eating a variety of foods foroptimal health―wonderful news for anyone who enjoys eating.Choose fruits and vegetables in all the colors of the rainbow.Reach for whole grains, beans, and a wide range of lean protein,from a little red meat to seafood. But most of all, take the timeto cook―and savor―meals that you can share with familyand friends.

Fresh, healthful food abounds

From 1994 to now, the number of farmers' markets has more thandoubled, according to the USDA. The local and seasonal fruits andvegetables such markets sell are the cornerstones of healthfuldiets.

Additionally, the number of specialty groceries focused onhealthier eating also has grown. From Whole Foods and Trader Joe'sto Bloom, Central Market, Hannaford, Harris Teeter, and Wegman's,these stores sell more than just food. They offer cooking lessons,nutrition information, and a gathering-place, community centersensibility.

Many of these markets stake their reputation on selling organicfood―a category that didn't have an official definition until2002, when the USDA developed guidelines governing the growth,production, and certification of organic foods. Since then, organicfood sales have grown by roughly 20 percent each year. Today,certified organic food is so common that it's even sold in largechain groceries, such as Giant, Safeway, Costco, and Wal-Mart.

Although there's little proof that eating organic will make youhealthier, it may make your conscience feel better, since evidenceindicates organic products can be good for the environment.

Sally Squires is the author ofSecrets of the Lean Plate Club and the nationally syndicated LeanPlate Club columnist for the Washington Post.