I’m going to crank up my crystal ball for you, because I have a strong sense that 2015 is going to be a turbulent year.
Every five years, the government updates its Dietary Guidelines for Americans, our nation’s official nutrition policy. The next version is due late this year. To help prepare the report, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services convened an advisory committee of academics who reviewed the latest science. The report was published a week ago, and, believe you me, it lays the groundwork for a couple of big battles.
I don’t agree with every bit of the committee’s advice, but I like its bottom line: consume more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and seafood. It also advises Americans to eat less sugar and meat, and that’s got both of those industries fuming.
Previous Guidelines have recommended eating more lean meat, not less meat. In the eyes of the meat industry, “less” is a fighting word. It reminds me of 1977, when the cattle industry forced a Senate committee to retreat from a similar recommendation. (The industry then campaigned against, and helped defeat, the committee’s chair, Sen. George McGovern.) As a portend of the battle that will be waged over the next six months, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association charged that it was “absurd” for the Dietary Guidelines committee to recommend eating less red meat.
For the first time, the Guidelines committee has recommended that people consume no more than 10 percent of their calories from added (refined) sugars. (Our average intake is about 16 percent.) While even that amount—about 12 teaspoons per day—is unnecessarily high, the sugar industry is not pleased. The Sugar Association maintains that “sugar consumed in moderation… is an important part of a healthy diet and active lifestyle.” And the soft-drink industry proclaimed that “sugar-sweetened beverages can be part of an overall diet.”
I was especially delighted that the panel also said that Nutrition Facts labels should list added sugars in teaspoons, not just grams. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has long pushed for that clearer labeling to help people avoid too much of the sugars that promote obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and tooth decay.
Meanwhile, Congress, which rarely allows science to trump politics, has told the government that the Dietary Guidelines should not discuss the sustainability of the food supply. Producing beef requires more energy and pollutes the environment more than any other food, so you can guess who was behind that directive.
On a separate front, we and other health advocates had to fight off congressional proposals to roll back some of the progress that has been made in providing healthier school meals. We largely dodged that bullet, but 2015 will be a tougher road as the more-right-leaning Congress revisits the child nutrition programs.
Congress did bend to the wishes of the potato industry, however. In 2009, the USDA took fresh white potatoes off the list of foods available to mothers in the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program because they already eat plenty of potatoes.
That infuriated the National Potato Council (yes, there really is one), which got senators from potato-growing states to stand up for the industry’s financial interests. When Congress caved last December and allowed potatoes into the WIC program, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted wryly, “When it comes to children’s health, I’ve got much more confidence in pediatricians than politicians.”
Expect more dustups in 2015. Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri has already introduced legislation to exempt supermarkets, convenience stores, and pizza chains from new rules requiring chain restaurants to list calories on menus…as if pizza’s calories didn’t count!
Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D.
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Other relevant links:
• How the food industry is hurting our health. See: Diet and Weight Loss: The Food Industry Flexes Its Muscles
• We need to solve the soft drink problem. See: It’s Time to Reign in “Big Soda”
• How can you develop habits to keep you healthy? See: Making a Good Diet and Exercise Work for You