The new dietary guidelines recently released by the federal government reflect changes consumers are already starting to make to their diets to some extent, and may have long-term effects on eating patterns in the country, although changes are less likely in the short term, according to consumer trend watchers.

The guidelines are issued every five years by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. The release of the 2015-2020 report was delayed, and was not issued until this month.

As usual, the guidelines recommend more consumption of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and lean meat, and less consumption of saturated fat. They also said no more than 10 percent of daily caloric intake should be from added sugar. They removed the 300 milligram limit on dietary cholesterol, saying instead that people should eat as little of it as possible.

The guidelines also suggested that men and teenage males should eat less meat, poultry and eggs, and instead consume more vegetables or other foods that are underrepresented in their diet. Those underrepresented items vary from individual to individual.

Despite those specific restrictions, the guidelines for the first time stressed the importance of focusing less on adding or eliminating individual foods and thinking more of overall dietary patterns to ensure a balanced diet.

“These Guidelines … embody the idea that a healthy eating pattern is not a rigid prescription, but rather, an adaptable framework in which individuals can enjoy foods that meet their personal, cultural, and traditional preferences and fit within their budget,” the guidelines said.

Rachel Kalt, senior strategist for The Culinary Edge, a restaurant consulting firm based in San Francisco, said the guidelines echo sentiments that many consumers already have.

Many Americans are focusing less on specific ingredients and more on a holistic approach to their diets, while moving to alternative sweeteners, whole grains, fruit and vegetables, Kalt said.

“These kinds of healthy eating habits have really entered the mainstream,” she said.

Whole grains and legumes are moving from the “hippy, crunchy, granola vegetarian restaurant” to emerging fast-casual concepts and even toward restaurants that are part of the mass culture, Kalt said. For instance, Chick-fil-A recently said it would drop coleslaw from its menu and introduced a Superfood Side, which features kale, broccolini, dried fruit and nuts.

Chicago-based consumer research firm The NPD Group noted that the restriction on sugar also reflected consumer patterns.

“Overall, U.S. consumers have indicated that sugar is the number one item they try to avoid in their diet,” NPD said in a recent release.

The guidelines’ reduced emphasis on cholesterol restriction is also reflected in consumer attitudes, NPD said, noting that concern for foods’ cholesterol content has been on the decline since 2006.

“Eggs, which bore the brunt of the anti-cholesterol push, are back in vogue and consumption is up as consumers look for more sources of protein,” it said, adding that consumers are eating more fruit, too, as the guidelines recommend. However, “vegetables are still fighting to find their way into Americans’ hearts and stomachs,” NPD said.

Kalt said that although the FDA guidelines reflect consumer trends, “Whether or not [the guidelines] will create a widespread ripple effect is less likely.”

Laurie Demeritt, CEO of The Hartman Group, a consumer research firm based in Bellevue, Wash., said the impact of the guidelines would depend on media response to them.

“We know that consumers increasingly utilize a wide variety of sources for information,” she said, especially online resources not related to the government. “Therefore, consumers’ reactions will likely be based on how the new guidelines are discussed by social media sources rather than the consumer’s gut reaction to the guidelines themselves.”

Although these guidelines have no legal force, they tend to affect the food offered in school lunches, and can also have an impact on food assistance programs for the poor, according to the New York Times.

Contact Bret Thorn at bret.thorn@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary