If the government’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee had its way, we’d be having a lot more “meatless Mondays,” and upping our intake of coffee and scrambled eggs. At least that’s one of the major takeaways from the revised 2015 dietary guidelines submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which has leaders from several major food industries steaming.
While the report itself is absolutely packed with information both new and old (and is a whopping 571 pages long), there are a handful of new suggestions and recommendations that are surprising, and others that aren’t sitting well with big business. In a nutshell, the advisory committee has given its blessing to coffee — stating that having between three and five cups per day is perfectly healthy — and cholesterol, interestingly enough, which is no longer listed as a “nutrient of concern.”
The committee also suggests taxing sugar-packed foods and drinks, including things like soda and candy, which naturally isn’t sitting well with the manufacturers of those items. The other big recommendation from the report is that Americans cut down on their intake of meat. Particularly, a slow-down on the consumption of red and processed meats is proposed, and not only for the health benefits, but also to lessen the environmental impact of livestock production.
“For decades, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have been at the core of our efforts to promote the health and well-being of American families,” said Secretaries Burwell of HHS and Vilsack of the USDA in a joint statement. “Now that the advisory committee has completed its recommendations, HHS and USDA will review this advisory report, along with comments from the public — including other experts — and input from other federal agencies as we begin the process of updating the guidelines.”
It’s important to keep in mind that these are only suggestions on the part of the advisory committee, and that the full dietary guidelines won’t actually be published until later in the year. This hasn’t stopped the food industry from starting its offensive, however.
The meat industry was among the first to criticize the new guideline suggestions, with the North American Meat Institute’s CEO Barry Carpenter saying that the advisory committee had ignored recent scientific studies into meat’s positive contributions to nutrition, and that the committee had engaged in a “foray into the murky waters of sustainability” that were “well beyond its scope and expertise.” This comes by way of Food Navigator-USA, which also reports that Carpenter called the advisory’s ideas “nonsensical” and “contradictory.”
Obviously, some feathers have been ruffled. The American Beverage Association reacted to the prospect of an additional tax being levied on soft drinks, which was — simply put — predictable. “The Committee’s efforts went beyond its charge and authority to develop dietary recommendations based on scientific evidence by advocating for public policies such as taxes and restrictions on foods and beverages,” the ABA said in a press release. “The Committee does not have the authority to make such recommendations, nor the scientific evidence or expertise to back up its recommendations.”
Protests from big business groups notwithstanding, there are reasons to take these guideline recommendations with a grain of salt. As Vox points out, while these guidelines may have the country’s best nutritional interests in mind, the science behind actual health impact is often self-reported and flawed. In addition to that, there is ample opportunity for these kind of government suggestions to be influenced by lobbyists. With those important points in mind, it’s easy to see why Americans, and not just giant trade industries, may look at these prospective guidelines with a skeptical eye.
Still, it’s hard to deny that there are some basic, logical truths behind a good portion of the new recommendations the Committee is pushing. Most people probably wouldn’t argue that cutting soda and sugary soft drinks — which offer little to no nutritional value — would be a good thing. As for meat, the Committee does not recommend cutting it out altogether. But there are still plenty of issues with the meat industry that need to be addressed, including the environmental impact and links to chronic illnesses like heart disease.
What will be interesting to see is if these recommendations make it to the final cut, or if industry lobbyists can successfully carve the parts out that they don’t like. The Committee has certainly stirred the pot, and now the food industry is primed to counter.