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Americans are learning more about food, and eating better

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Matthew Mead/AP

(Read caption) Brown butter asparagus with pecans was plated in Concord, N.H.

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Earlier this year, the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (USDGAC) released a set of recommendations, based on scientific research, to help guide Americans’ eating habits. The committee’s suggestions – eat a mostly plant-based diet, drink water (gasp) when thirsty, and avoid processed sugars in foods and beverages, among others – were nothing new. But hearing them from a government panel was. 

The USDGAC also took food’s role in the environment into account for the first time, acknowledging the value of more sustainable diets. This thrilled food policy advocates, who have been warning of the disastrous environmental effects of industrial meat production for years. 

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“It’s ridiculous to separate environment from health,” says Michele Simon, a public-health lawyer who works on food-industry issues. “We live in the world.” 

The guidance stirred outrage in some corners of the food industry. Associations for sugar and beef producers, in particular, mounted aggressive press campaigns in response. But the recommendations are part of a larger shift toward a more conscientious approach to food, from both an individual and a global standpoint. 

In the developed world, people have more access to information about where their food comes from and how it affects them than ever before. That’s influencing choices. Americans drink about 20 percent less soda than they did in 1998. As more people become aware of the nutritional and environmental effects of meat, vegetarianism and veganism are growing. Five percent of Americans now identify as vegetarian or vegan, and the country’s meat consumption fell 12.2 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the Department of Agriculture. 

Even for non-vegetarians, better treatment of food animals is becoming a bigger concern, thanks to documentaries and undercover online videos highlighting deplorable conditions in slaughterhouses and industrial dairy and egg farms. Such footage raises concerns not only about animal welfare, but also food safety.

“The availability of that information is a bigger driver than whatever the government is going to force on people,” says Warren Solochek, a restaurant-industry analyst with NPD Group, a market-research firm.

It also makes it harder for industry lobbyists to exert their influence on food policy, Ms. Simon says. In the past, the USDGAC, which meets every five years, has been criticized for conflicts of interest. Scientists whose research was funded by the American Meat Institute, the Sugar Association, and McDonald’s, to name a few, sat on its board. But, Simon says, such conflicts rarely go unnoticed these days. “The old lobbying system, where you buy [a lawmaker] lunch and call it a day, isn’t enough anymore.”

Still, food companies, sensing opportunity, are accelerating the shift. As soda sales lag, soft-drink companies are shifting their focus to other areas: Coca-Cola made major investments in coffee in 2014, for example, by purchasing a stake in Keurig Green Mountain. It has gradually boosted its stake in the tea, fruit juice, and water sectors of the drink market since 2007. 

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Scores of meat, poultry, and dairy producers have made pledges toward more ethical food sourcing. In March, McDonald’s announced it would stop using meat from chickens raised with antibiotics also used in human medicine on its menu, following similar pledges from Chick-fil-A and poultry giants like Tyson and Perdue. Aramark, a chain that runs thousands of dining halls and cafeterias, recently pledged to convert its entire egg supply to cage-free by 2020. 

Customers want “food with integrity,” says Mr. Solochek. “[Companies] that choose locally sourced, fresh ingredients can put that on their website and know that people are looking at it.” 

Obstacles remain. Not all elements of those dietary guidelines – the “best version ever,” as author Mark Bittman said – will trickle into policy. Also, policy alone won’t likely change behavior, especially when it comes to nutrition (though it does inform public programs like school lunches). “The top three foods in restaurants are hamburgers, fries, and pizza, and that hasn’t changed in 20 years,” Solochek notes. 

But the call for a better food system is growing louder, and the political and business worlds are listening.