Simple solutions to 'Mission Impossible'

by Eric Schroeder
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When it comes to rising rates of obesity and associated health problems, there is no shortage of diagnosticians. Large numbers of educators, politicians, scientists and others are quick to cite terrifying data about the number of Americans who are overweight and the consequences of overeating. Against this backdrop, K. Dun Gifford is an anomaly. For the past 20 years, the president and founder of Boston-based Oldways has pursued simple solutions to America’s thorny eating challenges.

Measured by one indicator, the proliferation of the Whole Grain Stamp, the most visible outgrowth of his efforts, Mr. Gifford is making a difference. Less than five years after its introduction, the stamp now appears on more than 2,600 products with billions of dollars of sales. The stamp is emblematic of the Oldways approach seeking positive eating changes with positive messages.

Still, Mr. Gifford’s mission easily could be viewed as toward its beginning — the race for a tortoise and not a hare. Certainly, many signs suggest the rising rates of obesity have not reversed. From Mr. Gifford’s perspective, changing eating behaviors is a difficult task, and one that requires patience and perseverance. Twenty years is a mere blip in the timeline of American dietary patterns, and Mr. Gifford’s initiatives all seek to increase awareness. Toward that end, the Mediterranean Foods

Alliance, the Whole Grains Council and the Latino Nutrition Coalition have been established.

All three groups fall under the Oldways umbrella, an organization that describes itself as a "food issues think tank." The non-profit organization brings pressing issues to the forefront of public debates and instigates positive changes in the way Americans perceive and understand food, health and nutrition.

Oldways does not fit neatly into the model of a traditional industry association or think tank. The group has been molded in the image of Mr. Gifford and reflects the founder’s varied and colorful life experiences.

Awareness as a child

While his career has included stints in the armed services, politics and the restaurant business, Mr. Gifford’s approach also was shaped by powerful childhood experiences. In an interview with Milling & Baking News,

Mr. Gifford described his grandmother as "a nut case on the issue of whole bread, whole grains," his mom as a "fruits and vegetables" proponent and his dad as a "mashed potatoes with gravy and liver kind of guy."

"We had in the household an awareness of the differences when we were children," Mr. Gifford said. "It didn’t register as a cosmic issue or anything like that, it was just an awareness. And that happened a lot when I was growing up with food."

After graduating from Harvard College, Mr. Gifford served as a lieutenant in the United States Navy before moving on to a brief, yet eventful, career on Capitol Hill that included jobs as a special assistant to the Office of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He was a national campaign coordinator in the ill-fated presidential campaign of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Later he served as legislative assistant to Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

"Working on Capitol Hill you come to understand you can change people’s minds with ideas, rhetoric and programs," he said. "You can change the way people live. You can change their lives and patterns."

While politics gave Mr. Gifford the belief in the power to create positive change, the restaurant business of the 1970s fueled a different fire.

"I was fascinated by the restaurant industry," he explained. "You have to change the menu all the time, and it’s about satisfying customers. You start to think about the impact of foods from that perspective — it’s a business."

Mr. Gifford spent more than a decade in different facets of the restaurant business from investor and co-owner to manager in a variety of establishments, including the Ritz-Carlton hotel and The Harvest in Harvard Square. He even founded a food business (Kilvert & Forbes) with U.S. Senator John Kerry.

During this time Mr. Gifford became acquainted with two individuals he said had a powerful impact on his life and America’s eating habits — the late renowned chef, author and television personality Julia Child and the late trailblazing winemaker Robert Mondavi. Ms. Child and Mr. Mondavi founded the American Institute of Wine and Food in 1981 to promote the understanding and appreciation of food and wine. Mr. Gifford served as chairman of the institute.

"It was just being at the right place at the right time," Mr. Gifford said of his friendships with Ms. Child and Mr. Mondavi. "It’s not something you could think up to pursue."

This experience and others filled Mr. Gifford with a sense that a pendulum in the U.S. food system had swung too far. He spent time thinking about an effort related to fishing, a skill he’d learned from his father and taught to his children.

"The whole thing just kind of came together around the idea that we’ve lost something with intense corporatization of the food system," he said. "Is it a great loss? A medium loss? A large loss? But we lost something. We lost the local and regional farming. And that is what came to me one day as Oldways."

This idea was reinforced by a 1987 visit to China where he was exposed to cooking schools where old men were showing young Chinese about the "old ways" of cooking through traditional Chinese recipes. That year he also traveled to Parma, Italy, where he visited a Parmigiano Reggiano creamery.

Back in the United States, Mr. Gifford couldn’t understand why American eating habits were so narrowly focused. He spent 18 months developing the Oldways concept.

"I figured I could do a non-profit advocacy group centered on good farming and good eating habits," he said.

Sitting at the Oldways table

An underlying premise of Oldways was the value of exchanging information, habits, ways and techniques related to food preparation and eating in different countries and about how traditional foods have the same kind of nutrition basis even if the foods are expressed differently, he said.

Because of his relationship with Ms. Child and Mr. Mondavi, gastronomy has always been an important element of Oldways. Mr. Gifford turned to contacts at the Harvard School of Public Health, including Walter Willett and Frank Sacks, to collaborate on the scientific foundation of the Mediterranean Diet.

The final "leg" for the "three-legged stool" was sustainability, which Mr. Gifford said the organization stumbled upon when a group focused on the environment and sustainability approached the Oldways leadership.

With these elements, Mr. Gifford said Oldways "felt intellectually honest."

"It wasn’t complicated, and it wasn’t a fad like Atkins," he said. "It wasn’t only carbs that matter, or only proteins that matter."

For many years, Oldways focused principally on the Mediterranean Diet.

"The idea of the Mediterranean Diet was solid science," he said. "Olive oil was the principal fat, and being monounsaturated as opposed to saturated like butter and lard was what made a big difference health wise. That was relatively new information at the end of the 1980s. That’s a key piece of this puzzle."

To help raise awareness, Mr. Gifford suggested in the early 1990s piggybacking on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Food Guide Pyramid.

A Mediterranean Diet pyramid was created, a graphic that was updated earlier this year.

The revised 2009 pyramid groups all plant foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes, seeds, olives and olive oil) together to emphasize the health benefits they provide. The graphic added herbs and spices for reasons of both health and taste, and advocates regular consumption of fish and shellfish.

"The new Mediterranean Diet Pyramid does not decrease the importance of grains, especially whole grains," Mr. Gifford said when asked why whole grains lost their own piece of the pyramid. "Rather, it groups all plant-based foods into one section to emphasize that diets that are largely plant-based have been proven to be extremely healthy, and that the synergies between different foods are very important. Balanced meals include foods from several food groups."

W.G.C. takes shape

More recently, Mr. Gifford and Oldways moved on to tackle a different issue based on what he perceives as a "U.S. system that was exclusively promoting highly refined white flour products to the exclusion of anything else."

Consumer awareness about enriched grains and whole grains was limited, and Oldways sponsored a conference in 2002 to discuss the issue with dieticians, scientists and bread bakers. It was at this meeting in 2002 that Mr. Gifford said Mike Orlando of Sunnyland Mills and Jeff Dahlberg of the National Sorghum Producers pinned him down and said "You just can’t talk about it, you have to do something about it."

"At the very end of the meeting they came up behind me with a bucket of grain and poured it over my head," he recounted. "They said, ‘That’s whole grain. You have to get that into people’s minds.’"

Using Oldways’ experience with getting the Mediterranean Diet off the ground floor, Mr. Gifford said a similar tack was taken with whole grains.

"We spent a long time trying to figure out what the industry was doing because there weren’t a lot of statistics around in the early 2000s about whole grains," he said.

Ultimately, the group decided the best approach for encouraging whole grains intake was partnering with industry.

"This was key," he said. "To work with people who were already making whole grain products and selling them. Bob’s Red Mill, for example. They had a very small niche, but they were there, and they had great products and great packaging."

Ultimately, he said Oldways was able to bring the industry people together, forming the Whole Grains Council in 2003.

"But it takes a long time," he said of the whole grains initiative. "It takes the right people, the right idea, the right messages. We’re still in the middle of it, or perhaps the beginning of it. To be honest, I don’t know where we are."

At one time Oldways, and Mr. Gifford in particular, was described as "a critic of refined white flour" for promoting whole grains while decrying white flour-based products as unhealthy. While still espousing the benefits of whole grains, Mr. Gifford was not willing to bash refined grains.

"I think it’s like everything else in life, it’s about balance," he said in explaining the role of different grains in the diet. "It’s not about shutting down one or the other. I don’t think I want a whole grain wedding cake if I ever get remarried. I don’t think you have whole grain communion wafers (as an extreme example). There is room for everything in the healthy dietary pattern. I think what happens is the people who take the extreme position that you can’t have white bread anymore are the ones who are part of the reason why Americans eat poorly. Because you have these camps that exclude as opposed to give permission to eat wisely what you want, but not all the time. So when people say you can’t have white bread you lose 75% of the population who wants it and will eat it and they want a white hot dog and hamburger bun.

"We have never tried to say — I don’t believe — that people should never eat white bread or white cake or white muffins. I hope we haven’t. You may have caught us at a bad time.

"I do think absolutism is self-defeating in dietary education and food education."

Stamp makes a splash

From a consumer messaging standpoint, the W.G.C. has hit a home run with its Whole Grain Stamp, which was introduced in January 2005. The 2,800 products that bear the stamp feature one of two designs — the "Basic" stamp is for any food that contains at least 8 grams of whole grain content, and the "100%" stamp for food that contains all whole grains and at least 16 grams of whole grain ingredients.

The importance of the stamp has not been lost on Mr. Gifford.

"I believed we had to put some type of flag on the packages if we could ever make it happen," he said. "Otherwise it’s an intellectual construct. I really drive our people at Oldways to ‘be real.’ If you believed like I did that there were more people who wanted to eat whole grains than knew how to do it, then you want to help them. You don’t need to lecture them, you want to help them. And the way to do that was to help them quickly spot whole grains. In this case, a symbol." "While Oldways was proceeding on the premise that the stamp would be featured principally on niche products, he credits Stephen W. Sanger, former chairman, president and chief executive officer of General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, for an important and difficult breakthrough with mainstream consumer packaged companies.

He acknowledged that the company had no "inside route" with General Mills. So Sara Baer-Sinnott, executive vice-president of Oldways and director of the W.G.C., decided to contact Mr. Sanger.

He recalled, "I said to her, ‘Are you crazy?’ She found his e-mail and wrote him."

They were invited to Mr. Sanger’s office for a meeting.

The council had been reaching out to General Mills, without success, for months, and Mr. Gifford was skeptical, even though Mr. Sanger was a gracious host during a brief private meeting.

"He explained he had some of his colleagues in the private conference room, so we walked around the corner and there was a big conference table — filled except the three chairs at the front of the table," he said. "So we sat down and they listened to us talk about the Whole Grains Council and plans for the Whole Grain Stamp. Mr. Sanger asked, ‘Do you think whole grains are the next big thing?’ and, of course, we said absolutely yes. After more discussion he said, ‘I have another appointment, but I want you to talk with Dun and Sara.’ We all talked, and they were the first big company to get a lot of products on the line."

Reaching more consumers

In late April, when the W.G.C. kicked off its "Make (at least!) half your grains whole" 2009 conference in Alexandria, Va., Mr. Gifford provided some perspective on what he would like to see next.

"I have some preconceptions, but I also love these conferences because I listen," he said. "I don’t think we have the answers every time. I learn a lot about what the real and perceived problems are.

"What has to happen now is like the ‘third round’ in a boxing match, and we have to come up with something that is going to reach the next 20% of the population."

Specifically, he mentioned the need for government to expand its role.

"I think Obama has to take the lead getting the government everywhere — armed forces, schools, prisons — to be whole grains, or half," he said. "But at least start the process. It’s not going to happen in a day or a month. But if he can start the process — if the government wants half the grains eaten by any government/federal facility to be whole — that would be big. We know Bush would have never done it. We couldn’t get him to do anything. So we’ll try. And that’s what I think is the message. I think he would be embarrassed not to do it."

But growth alone will not come from government, he said. Other large stakeholder groups will be instrumental as well, including school food service and hospital systems.

The W.G.C. also will keep a keen eye cast on developments in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. In an April 16 letter to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the W.G.C. recommended clearly defining 16 grams of whole grain ingredients as a Mypyramid serving of mixed grain foods, and that the Guidelines drop the term "ounce equivalents" in referring to grain foods, suggesting instead a more neutral term such as "units."

"They’re pretty good relatively speaking," Mr. Gifford said of the Guidelines, suggesting the possibility of greater success if language were tweaked supporting whole grains "in a practical sense as opposed to a theoretical sense."

Fire still burns for change

Having just turned 70 a few months back, Mr. Gifford gave no indications that he intends to cut back on his travel or devotion to his role at Oldways. He also is focused on tackling new challenges, which is behind the creation of the Latino Nutrition Coalition.

"I think what we’ve got to do is address the eating issues relating to the great waves of new people who have come to this country in the past five to seven years," he said. "Look at some of the census data of South American and Central American people here. They are more at risk for obesity. It’s crazy that we can’t find messages that work for them. I don’t think our past government has tried. Unless this is dealt with successfully, it’s going to swamp the public health system."

The last, and key, element of Oldways’ three-legged stool (the seat) is pleasure, which Mr. Gifford consistently refers to as "the pleasures of the table."

"Breaking bread," he added, "is one of the great joys of being human."

Finding ways to move the needle on better eating is a challenge, one he described as a three- to four-year project. He said looking to Western Europe and Asia may be helpful.

"We have to build coalitions with other groups and they’re going to be sensitive about it, but we’ll try," he said. "And I think if I can do that, it is a good kind of capstone.

"What that means is we have to go find out how the Swedish government has been effective — which it is — in getting its people to eat well. What do they do that we don’t do. And find the other countries where somehow government programs have actually helped people change the way they eat, drink and exercise. So what’s the difference? I don’t know, and that’s what we need to find out.

"The E.U. has a completely different way of educating its citizenry in all those different countries than we do here. Is that a good one? I don’t know. Will it translate here? I don’t know? What are the Chinese and Japanese doing? What are they really doing, not just what are their dietary guidelines. And then we need to find out if the ones that work well are translatable here. I think that’s kind of like a 24-month investigation and we’ll go from there. But I don’t think it’s been done."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Milling and Baking News, August 25, 2009, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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