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New nutritional guidelines for 2015-2020 released after compromises with Congress, food industry

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By: Kimberly Leblanc, Ph.D.

Earlier this month, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion released the new nutritional guidelines, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, for 2015-2020. Many of the guidelines are familiar from previous versions, recommending a wide range of fruits and vegetables, at least 50% of grains being whole, fat-free or low-fat dairy, a variety of lean proteins, and limiting saturated fats, trans-fats, and sodium. One of the new recommendations was a stricter limit on sugar intake, with no more than 10% of daily calories coming from added sugar. The World Health Organization (WHO) has made similar recommendations, citing evidence that lowering added sugar could reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer. In an article for Politico, Michael Jacobson, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said that the recommended limit is “a major step forward.” The biggest surprise in the guidelines was the recommendation that men and boys “reduce their overall intake of protein foods” such as meat, poultry and eggs, and add more vegetables to their diets.

The nutritional advice is updated every five years, and it has become mired in political controversy because of its impact on how the food industry does business and how Americans eat. Recommendations from the report guide decisions on the aims of food assistance programs, the content of school meals, the labeling and advertising of food products, and the advice given by health professionals. With billions of dollars at stake, food industry groups bristle at any potentially negative mention of their products. The interest groups unhappiest with the guidelines are likely to be sugar growers and food manufacturers, as a result of the government’s new recommended limit on added sugars. However, before the recommendations could make it to the new guidelines, they were met with strong opposition from a number of corporate and agricultural interest groups, the meat industry in particular.

One of the many recommendations made by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in their report that did not make it into the final version of the guidelines was for Americans to adopt a diet low in red and processed meat, which met with strong opposition from meat industry groups. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, and the North American Meat Institute spent hundreds of thousands of dollars last year lobbying, with a part of their goal being “to get lean beef recognized in the final health dietary patterns statement.” “Those things should be part of, and remain part of a balanced diet, and there’s no reason to cut back,” said Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council. That comment stands in stark contrast to the findings of the WHO last October, which classified the consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and the consumption of processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” based on “sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.” The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee was more conservative in their report, stating, “moderate evidence reports inconsistent positive associations between colorectal cancer and the intake of certain animal protein products, mainly red and processed meat. Limited evidence shows that animal protein products are associated with prostate cancer incidence.”

Another recommendation that didn’t make the cut was the advice for Americans to consume more plant-based foods and less meat to help promote environmentally sustainable eating habits. That suggestion elicited intense lobbying and criticism from the food and meat industries, leading to a congressional hearing on the topic last year. In December of 2015, Congress passed a spending bill that contained a directive for the Obama administration to ignore environmental factors and focus solely on nutrients in the next revision of the guidelines. However, food production, and livestock in particular, has a significant negative impact on the environment. Livestock producers, which include meat and dairy farming, account for about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions around the world. That’s more than all the world’s cars, buses, boats, and trains combined. If you think regulating this would fall under the Environmental Protection Agency’s jurisidiction, think again. In December of 2015, Congress renewed a provision that prevents the EPA from requiring emission reports from livestock producers, making the meat industry the only major source of greenhouse gases in the country excluded from filing annual reports. Despite the evidence and the recommendations from the committee, the pressure from industry and farm state lawmakers has led USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell to promise furious lawmakers that they would steer clear of recommendations concerning the environmental impact of the consumption of meat.

Nutritional issues were also a bargaining chip in the spending bill that was passed in December. In recent years, reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs have allowed the USDA to improve critical nutritional standards. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics earlier this month concluded that the nutritional quality of school meals has increased by about 30 percent, and an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) documents improvements, too. Yet the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents cafeteria directors and receives financial support from food companies, has lobbied Congress to relax some standards, complaining that the sodium standards would be “extremely difficult to achieve” and that stricter nutritional standards have led to cafeterias losing money. Their demands were met in the congressional directives that were attached to the bill, which prohibits the federal government from requiring less salt in school lunches until more research is done and allows schools to obtain exemptions from whole-grain requirements. This despite the fact that the CDC found in 2014 that 90% of school-aged kids eat too much sodium, and that the USDA reports that 97% of all schools are already meeting the 100% whole grain rich rules. As of January 20th, 2016, the Senate Agriculture Committee has voted in support of a compromise plan in the re-authorization of the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act, which incorporates the SNA’s demands to table the sodium recommendations and allow exemptions to the whole-grain requirement. The SNA had also asked to relax the fruit and vegetable requirement, but lawmakers didn’t budge on this key tenet of the standards.

Nutritional research is constantly evolving, and our guidelines should evolve with new evidence as it comes out.  Debates over the scientific evidence for certain guidelines, such as the link between saturated fat and heart disease, are reasonable. That’s the point of having a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee made up of scientists and medical professionals review the evidence before submitting their recommendations. As a prime example, the committee reversed the recommended cholesterol limit of 300mg/day in the new guidelines “because available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol.” However, scientific evidence isn’t the only factor influencing our guidelines. Agricultural and corporate interest groups, due to their size and financial incentives, have the power to shape the nutritional guidelines based on economic interests rather than scientific evidence. This power, and the desire of certain politicians to cater to these groups, is troubling, especially in a time when childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years and when type 2 diabetes accounts for 20% to 50% of new-onset diabetes case patients in youth.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 1, 2016 at 9:00 am

Posted in Essays

Tagged with , ,

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