New Dietary Guidelines Show Politics Still Trumps Science

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The U.S. government announced its latest update of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) today, advising Americans to eat less salt, sugar and fat, and to increase intake of fruits, veggies and fish. Pretty familiar stuff. But the 2010 DGA also recommends something else, for the first time: that Americans eat less overall.

Why is that a big deal? Because it’s an acknowledgment that obesity — and overconsumption — are causing serious health problems in the U.S., and that people should make it a priority to eat less food. Long-time industry critics like nutrition expert Marion Nestle are pleased with the DGA update. “I’m in shock,” Nestle wrote on her blog, Food P0litics. (More on New Dietary Guidelines: Cut Salt and Sugar, Eat More Fish)

The new DGA also makes some explicit suggestions, in a way it hasn’t done in the past. For instance, rather than vaguely recommending that Americans increase intake of fruits and veggies, the updated guidelines explicitly state that half of your plate should be taken up by fruits and vegetables. That’s much more concrete, translatable advice.

But, as Nestle points out, the guidelines tend to call out certain foods only when advising people to “eat more.” When the message is “eat less,” however, the DGA mostly resorts to identifying nutrients — like sodium, solid fat or added sugars — instead of pinpointing actual foods you should eat less of, like red meat, white bread, cookies, soda and potato chips. Nestle writes:

That’s politics, for you.

Let’s give them credit for “drink water instead of sugary drinks.” That comes close. But I listened in on the press conference and conference call and several people pushed federal officials about why they didn’t come out and say “eat less meat.” The answers waffled.

To be fair, as the New York Timesnoted, the report does at least suggest that people “avoid fatty foods like pizza, desserts and cheese (albeit deep in the report).” (More on More Calls to Overhaul Deceptive Front-of-Package Labeling)

Nestle’s other beef, so to speak, is that the DGA puts the onus of good nutrition on individuals instead of the food industry:

This is all about personal responsibility. What about the “toxic” food environment? Shouldn’t these guidelines be directed at the food and restaurant industries?

In other words, shouldn’t restaurants be advised to serve smaller portions? And shouldn’t food makers be pressured to reduce their copious use of salt, added sugar and fat in processed foods?

The criticism brings to mind another recent disagreement between industry and government — over front-of-pack nutrition labels on packaged foods. Last year, with industry participation, the Food and Drug Administration began looking into designing a new, voluntary labeling system that would avoid the confusing and often deceptive wording that currently appears on package fronts. The “health” claims that food makers have long used on the front of packages — “High in fiber!” or “All natural!” — are more marketing ploy than legitimate nutritional information, and they result in misled, confused and distracted consumers. (More on Study: Calorie Counts in Restaurants May Not Curb Eating Habits)

But after months of negotiation, talks between industry and the Obama administration broke down, and food makers went ahead and announced on Jan. 24 that they were launching their own voluntary label called “Nutrition Keys,” rather than waiting for the FDA to establish its own guidelines. Of course, the industry version departs from what the government had in mind. The New York Times reported:

The Obama administration wanted the package-front labels to emphasize nutrients that consumers might want to avoid, like sodium, calories and fat. But manufacturers insisted that they should also be able to use the labels to highlight beneficial nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and protein.

The administration concluded that “in the end, the label was going to be confusing, because those things would be included out of context, and it could make unhealthy foods appear like they had some redeeming quality,” said an official who was not authorized to discuss the talks and spoke on condition of anonymity. For example, the official said, “ice cream would be deemed healthy because it would have calcium in it.”

At the very least, however, the Nutrition Keys label does put total amounts of saturated fat, sodium and sugar out front. Which means that careful readers of the DGA can track what percentage of their daily maximum allowance of these ingredients a given product contains. (More on 5 Ways to Improve Your Diet on the Cheap)

Let’s just hope Americans have been reading the DGA more carefully than Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who said during this morning’s press conference announcing the update: “I must admit personally that I never read the dietary guidelines until I got this job.”