The federal government’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines were finally issued today (yes, in 2016), and they offer no real surprises, either in terms of what foods they advise we eat and in what proportions, or in terms of the strong criticisms they’re already evoking.
The government’s stance on meat remains essentially unchanged: people should eat it in “moderate” amounts (though it does mildly suggest limiting consumption of “proteins” and “saturated fats.”) That’s despite recommendations by a panel of experts convened by the government, which had called for urging Americans to lower consumption. And it’s despite the urging of health advocates like the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Cancer Society. (In October, the World Health Organization also declared processed meats carcinogenic and said that red meat was a suspected carcinogen.)
But, to the delight of many health advocates, the guidelines also include stronger warnings against eating too much sugar, despite efforts by the sugar lobby to keep its sugar advice the same as it had been.
The advice on meat and sugar basically comports with the cultural currents of the moment. Driven in part by science and in part by dietary fads (the latter often driven by marketing), more people are attuned to the dangers of sugar.
The process for arriving at the guidelines is inherently political, of course.
Last February, a panel of experts advising the Obama administration, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, recommended that they urge Americans to eat less meat (“low” consumption rather than “moderate”). The meat industry was stirred into action, and can count the result as a win. Politico reports that the National Cattleman’s Beef Association spent $112,000 on lobbying the government in the first three quarters of 2015, while the National Pork Producers Council spent $780,000 and the North American Meat Institute spent about $220,000. Similarly, the government, which formerly advised Americans to limit their cholesterol by eating fewer eggs, has excised that advice from the guidelines after there reportedly was pressure from the egg lobby.
The guidelines are updated every five years. They carry huge implications for both the food industry and for human health. Public schools use the guidelines to shape menus; and the federal and state governments use them to determine what is and is not covered in food-assistance and health programs. They also provide a basis for regulatory action by bodies such as the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration on matters such as food labeling requirements.
The advisory panel had also suggested that the guidelines account for the environmental impacts of various foods, and that they advise local and state governments to tax certain classes of foods, such as sugary beverages. Those suggestions were not included, and in fact Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack publicly promised that they would not be.
The sugar lobby, though, was still far less successful than Big Meat. The guidelines’ recommendation that people keep their sugar consumption below 10% of their daily caloric intake is a further blow to an industry that is already taking heat from all sides. The guidelines’ stance on sugar could give the FDA all the leverage it needs to require that nutrition labels include the amount of “added sugar” contained in all products, as has been proposed.
It’s also a sign that the sugar and beverage industries are losing some of their once-formidable lobbying power. As the evidence mounts that sugar can take a toll on human health, the claims of sugar backers are more dubious. The Sugar Association last year wrote a letter to the advisory committee asserting flatly that there is “not a preponderance of scientific evidence for conclusion statements that link ‘added sugars’ intake to serious disease or negative health outcomes…” That statement ran directly counter to the near-universal consensus among nutrition scientists that added sugars contribute to obesity, diabetes, and a host of other diseases.