Because most Americans already consume more sodium than was recommended in the last version of the guidelines, the new target of 1,500 milligrams is likely to pose formidable challenges to American consumers, not to mention food processors who rely on sodium as a flavor enhancer, preservative and binder.
"I think people ignore them when it comes to eating more fruits and vegetables and reducing refined sugars, but they will listen when they see the permission to eat six to 11 servings of grain per day," Fallon said.
The proposed 2010 guidelines are the first to acknowledge America's dire obesity epidemic and the roles environment and communication play in actually getting the public to follow the suggestions.
They cite "powerful influences that currently promote unhealthy consumer choices, behaviors and lifestyles" in our environment and call for cooperation with the Department of Health and Human Services to encourage improvements in areas including health, nutrition and physical education in schools; greater financial incentives to purchase, prepare and consume healthful food; more health-promoting foods and portions offered in restaurants and by manufacturers; and more exercise-friendly communities.
Among the questions the committee considered for this year's guidelines was how much and what kinds of fish consumption it could endorse given the latest research on mercury contamination.
Unlike the current food pyramid, the government's latest proposed advice takes into consideration the health threats posed by mercury, a toxic metal that taints certain types of fish and can trigger learning difficulties in children and neurological and heart problems in adults.
The proposed guidelines reflect a 2004 joint advisory from the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency that cautions young children, pregnant women, nursing mothers and women of childbearing age not to eat swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish because of high mercury levels. It also advises those groups to consume no more than 12 ounces of fish a week, including no more than 6 ounces of canned albacore tuna.
An online version of the current food pyramid continues to recommend swordfish and tuna, four years after the Tribune first reported on the government's contradictory advice. The National Academy of Sciences has sharply criticized the government for not doing enough to advise consumers about which fish are safest to eat, a job that has fallen to nonprofit health groups.
Based on the government's own testing, Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, says the chances that any type of canned tuna will contain high levels of mercury are great enough that pregnant women should never eat it.
"You can get all of the benefits of fish and avoid the dangers of mercury by eating low-mercury fish," said Jean Halloran, the group's director of food policy initiatives. "It's been distressing to see the government isn't doing a better job helping women make smart choices."
The seafood industry has argued that advising women about high- and low-mercury types of fish would scare them away from eating seafood altogether. Yet a 2008 federal study found a decline in the number of women nationwide with high levels of the toxic metal in their bodies, even though those women were eating the same amount of seafood. The finding suggested that consumer advisories about mercury had started to work.