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Food industry making changes amid shift in US

CHICAGO -- Like many Americans at this time of year, the food industry has been talking a lot about healthy eating, improved nutrition and making better choices.

Whether or not it lasts longer than a New Year's resolution, that commitment to healthier foods should soon be more evident in the marketplace.

Faced with childhood obesity concerns and changing dietary guidelines, packaged-foods makers and fast-food companies are responding with products and initiatives that will surface on store shelves and menus and in vending machines and TV ads.

Bob Goldin, an analyst at Chicago food consultancy Technomic Inc., senses ''a real ground shift" starting to take place in the industry -- even if consumers don't sense it overnight.

Federal officials took actions Wednesday that should make those steps bigger. They issued new dietary guidelines that set the stage for the revision of the familiar food pyramid in two months, advising Americans to eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and stick to fat-free or lowfat milk.

Food manufacturers tracked the yearlong hearing process closely, taking notes and lobbying behind the scenes. They now are likely to come out with more whole-grain cereals and breads, more low-fat dairy products and perhaps changes in the ways french fries and chips are prepared, said Dr. Xavier Pi-Sunyer, a member of the dietary guidelines advisory committee.

A spate of announcements in the past week typified the shifts under way and testified to the pressure on companies to change.

Kraft Foods Inc., the nation's largest food maker, said it would curb advertising of Oreo cookies, regular Kool-Aid and other popular snacks to children under 12 to help encourage better eating habits. It also will begin labeling food and beverages that meet certain nutrition criteria with a flag touting the products' benefits.

The Grain Foods Foundation disclosed plans for an ad campaign touting the nutritional value of grain-based products. That came three months after General Mills said it would convert Trix, Lucky Charms and all its other breakfast cereals to whole grain. Also, Gorton Inc. said it had removed trans fats from all 56 of its frozen seafood products.

The healthier eating trend already has reshaped hamburger chains' menus. Salads introduced less than two years ago have become big sellers for McDonald's Inc., which also is promoting healthier options such as Happy Meals with fruit along with low-fat milk and bottled water.

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