WHEN OUTGOING Assistant Agriculture Secretary Carol Foreman announced last week of USDA's menus and recipes, designed to help people follow Dietary Guidelines, she appeared to be at odds with the incoming Secretary of Agriculture John Block.
The publication, "Ideas for Better Eating," will probably be just as controversial as last year's Dietary Guidelines because of the advice to change certain eating habits.The most hotly debated recommendation is to reduce fat, saturated fat and cholesterol consumption.
Beef, pork and egg producers consider this a serious threat to their livelihood. Some of them tried last year both to discredit the guidelines and to stop USDA from printing additional copies. Nevertheless, the Agriculture Department has sent out over seven million copies.
The hint, if not fact, of controversy came to light at Block's confirmation hearing two days before Foreman unveiled the menu booklet. Block, a soybean and pig farmer told the committee: "I have to say people are pretty good at figuring out what to eat and not to eat. I think people are going to balance their diets." Block said that while he knows hogs are not people, hogs know how to balance their ration. A hog won't overeat, he said. "People surely are as smart as hogs. I'm not so sure government should get into telling people what they should or shouldn't eat."
At the press conference to announce the menu guides, Foreman said she was glad Block knew the difference between hogs and people. "It's fair to note the Agriculture Department has advised pork farmers how to feed hogs . . . so they will gain weight. That's the objective in raising them. I doubt [Block] intends to suggest the Department of Agriculture should do less for people than for pig producers . . . or pigs."
In response to a question about the future of the menus Foreman said she didn't see how Block could stop publication of the booklets after he took office. "I can't imagine anyone stopping publication of something already in print."
(The same day the menu guides were released the New England Journal of Medicine reported a 20-year study showing that the men who consumed the greatest amount of fat and cholesterol had more heart attacks than those who consumed the least.)
USDA's 21 menus were designed to implement six of the seven guidelines: Eat a variety of foods; maintain ideal weight; avoid too much fat, saturated fat and cholesterol; eat food with adequate amounts of starch and fiber; avoid too much sugar; avoid too much sodium and salt; if you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. At first glance the menus would be considered standard fare in the majority of American homes. Meat, fish or chicken are on the menu twice a day; there are sweets for dessert; ham is found in two different meals.
As a matter of fact, some people might say, just as they did about the guidelines, that they don't go far enough. According to Foreman, that was deliberate. "We didn't want to make any changes that would increase the cost of the amount of time spent in the kitchen."
But the amount of sugar, salt and fat has been reduced; whole-wheat flour has been substituted for white; whole-wheat bread and brown rice are included on some of the menus; suggested milk is either skim, 1 percent low fat or 2 percent low fat. Each menu has been designed to provide either 1,600 or 2,400 calories. There are notes explaining why various selections have been made: "Salad dressing adds calories and soduim. Be moderate in your use of them."
"Fruits with edible skins and seeds are good for their fiber."
"Banana nut bread is a change of pace from plain toast. The two slices have about the same number of calories as a sweet roll, but more vitamins and minerals. The banana nut bread has less fat and sugar and is made with whole-wheat flour."
Following the menus are rules for making up your own combinations from the proper alternatives, and 16 recipes have been included.
The book points out that "at the 1,600-calorie level [the menus,] fall short of recommended levels for vitamin B6, folacin (another B vitamin), iron and zinc. However, the levels of these nutrients in the menus exceed the average amounts consumed at similar levels of calorie intake, according to national surveys.
"To approach the recommended levels of these nutrients at low-calorie levels, it is necessary to be more moderate in the use of fat, sugar and alcohol than many of us are accustomed to, and to eat more nutrient-defense food." The book offers suggestions on how to do this. It may not be perfect, but it's easy to understand and simple to follow.
USDA has printed 100,000 free copies: 1/3 of them will be available through county extension agents; 1/3 through WIC program offices; 1/3 through nutrition education training offices. The Government Printing Office also has copies available for $2.25 each.