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Helen Ullrich, 83; Promoted Nutritional Labels, Helped Popularize Food Pyramid

April 07, 2006|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

By pushing for nutritional information labels on packaged food and helping to popularize the food pyramid, Helen Denning Ullrich tried to make it easier for Americans to develop better eating habits.

Ullrich, who helped establish the field of nutrition education, died of breast cancer March 19 at her home in Berkeley, said Patricia Mapps, her longtime neighbor and friend. Ullrich was 83.

As a primary founder of the Society for Nutrition Education in 1967, Ullrich helped make the discipline what it is today, said Pat Crawford, co-director of the Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley.

"She had foresight many years ago when she said, 'Knowledge isn't everything. We have to look beyond the science, at education and behavior,' " Crawford said.

In the late 1960s, science had just begun to link nutrition to chronic disease, which made Ullrich and others see the need for an organization that could influence the public's food choices. She ran the society for about a dozen years.

The movement gained ground at the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health at which Ullrich successfully lobbied for several landmark programs. They included the expansion of food stamp benefits and the adoption of nutrition facts labels, which began appearing on food packages in 1974.

"Helen was so effective in the political arena because she was very good at translating science into everyday language that people could understand," said Joanne Ikeda, a nutrition education specialist at UC Berkeley.

At an international conference in 1988, Ullrich introduced a simple illustration by an Australian colleague that would become a popular teaching tool for daily dietary needs: the food pyramid.

In the audience were two members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture who asked for copies, Ullrich recalled in "The Nutritionists," a memoir published last year. Four years later, the USDA introduced the first food guide pyramid.

Among Ullrich's proudest accomplishments was her role in the passage of the Child Nutrition Act of 1977, which brought nutrition education to schools.

She was born Nov. 28, 1922, in Berkeley and grew up in Evanston, Ill. Her father, Stephen Denning, was a dairy industrialist, and her mother, Margaret, had a degree in home economics from UC Berkeley.

After Ullrich earned a bachelor's degree in nutrition science from UC Berkeley in 1944, she completed a master's in nutrition education at Columbia University.

Her first job was as a food chemist in the Army during World War II. Later she researched the nutrition content of native foods at the University of Hawaii and worked as a nutrition specialist at Pennsylvania State University and UC Berkeley.

At 39, she married Bob Ullrich, a freelance journalist. After having her only child in 1963, she resigned from UC Berkeley because the university did not offer maternity leave.

When her daughter started school, Ullrich returned to the field, founding the nutrition society and launching its Journal of Nutrition Education, which she edited from 1968 to 1979.

In retirement, she helped found a food bank in Alameda County and volunteered at the Berkeley Food Pantry.

After her husband died a few years ago, friends often took her to fine restaurants. Ullrich was said to make smart food choices but wasn't above the occasional indulgence.

When presented with a box of See's candy, she allowed herself two pieces a day.

In addition to her daughter, Louise Myers, of Canton, Ohio, Ullrich is survived by two grandchildren.

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