06/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

We Still Need a Food Supply for Dummies!

In 2003, I told then U.S. Secretary of Health Tommy Thompson, and then FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan we needed a food supply for dummies (also published as an Op-Ed in the Hartford Courant, and New York Newsday). Presenting yesterday in Washington, D.C., to a committee of the Institute of Medicine at the National Academies of Science, my testimony was: we still do.

Advice to eat more plant foods simply states the destination; it does not provide the step-by-step, GPS-like guidance people need to move in that direction. Besides, alas, it doesn't work. It has not worked for decades. Less than 1.5 percent of Americans meet guidelines for fruits and vegetables, despite counting both French fries AND the ketchup poured over them as servings of vegetables, and juices as servings of fruit.

We should, indeed, eat more fruits and vegetables. But while working on that, we should also enable the AVERAGE shopper to identify and choose better-for-them bread, and cereal, and crackers, and sauces, and spreads, and dressings, and yogurts. After all, when you want a sandwich, you need bread- you will not swap out bread for broccoli. So the question is: which bread?

Because I believe it is nearly impossibly hard for the average shopper to answer the question -- which bread is most nutritious? -- I do NOT blame individuals in our society for obesity, and I don't think you should, either. Don't get me wrong: I believe we all have responsibility for how we use our feet and our forks every day. But we cannot blame individuals for an 'obesigenic' environment.

We need both public policy, and personal responsibility; we need to both cultivate will, and pave the way. The body politic must pave the way to better health -- the individual must then assume responsibility for walking it. We can no more expect people to achieve health despite an environment that encourages and actively markets the converse, than we can expect individuals to ride effortlessly to health on the shoulders of public policy.

Right now, most individuals simply cannot take responsibility for eating well because they are too disempowered. The do not know that marinara sauce routinely has more added sugar than ice cream topping; they do not know that breakfast cereals are routinely more concentrated sources of sodium than potato chips; they do not know fat-reduced peanut butter is less nutritious than regular due to added sugar and salt; they do not know that salt-reduced products routinely have added sugar and fat, sugar-reduced products routinely have added salt; they do not know that a 'multigrain' bread may contain no whole grains!

And why should they? Why should the busy mom dashing through a supermarket have to be a nutrition expert to make choices that are actually good for her and her family? Why should she need to figure out how to put together a lot of nutrient details, and interpret (or dismiss) impressive-sounding but misleading marketing messages just ... to buy a loaf of bread?

She shouldn't. If we made an objective, reliable, expert measure of overall nutritional quality for every food available at a glance to all, she wouldn't have to.

The average shopper is no dummy -- but he or she is not a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry either. He or she needs guidance to more nutritious foods. Guidance that is universal and trustworthy.

The average shopper should eat more foods that are 'food'. But they need help to get there from here. They need GPS for a very complicated modern foodscape that can undermine the best intentions of anyone but a truly expert navigator.

In 2003, we needed a food supply for dummies. We still do.