Skip to main content

New US food guidelines show the power of lobbying, not science

New US food guidelines show the power of lobbying, not science


Meat and soda execs can breathe easy

Share this story

Federal officials released a new set of dietary guidelines today that could have set a new path for Americans by encouraging people to eat less red meat and less sugar-sweetened beverages. But instead the US government released a report that many experts say shows just how much it succumbed to pressures by the meat and the soda industry — yet again.

For some nutrition experts, the disappointment that follows the release of the latest dietary guidelines is familiar. Every five years, the US government publishes a revised set of the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans — "and every five years I'm disappointed," says Christopher Gardner, a nutrition scientist at Stanford University. The guidelines' focus is on disease prevention, and they're very influential; they have an effect on everything from how companies label their food, to what types of food are included in school lunch programs. So, whatever the US government tells Americans to eat is bound to be controversial — and this latest set of guidelines was no exception.

"The meat lobby is very powerful in Congress."

Even though a panel of experts convened by the government — called the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee — said that a healthy dietary pattern is "lower in red and processed meats" the new guidelines make no mention of "red meats." In addition, the new guidelines ignore the advisory committee's analysis that concluded that a healthy diet should be "low in sugar-sweetened drinks."

"There are clear benefits of replacing red meat with almost any other protein sources — but the meat lobby is very powerful in congress," says Walter Willet, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University. "The Dietary Guidelines Committee was also quite explicit in their recommendation to limit sugar-sweetened beverages, and that's not talked about [in the guidelines] at all."

Willet isn't the only one who feels let down. "As expected, due to strong lobbying by the meat industry and the resulting strong pressure that Congress put into the developers of the 2015 DGAs, the recommendation to reduce consumption of red and processed meats was not included," says Rafael Perez-Escamilla, an epidemiologist at Yale University and a member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. "In my view, this is a major gap."

"In my view, this is a major gap."

One of big points of contention in 2015 was the guideline committee's decision to include a section on environmental sustainability in their report. That angle on nutrition advice had never been included in the committee's report before, and it rubbed a lot of people — the agriculture and meat industry, ahem — the wrong way. So, after months of lobbying and letter writing by Republicans and agricultural lobbyists alike, the idea that a healthy eating pattern should also be sustainable one was nixed. US Department of Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack and Sylvia Burwell, secretary of Health and Human Services, even released a joint statement in October in which they promised that the guidelines would "remain within the scope of our mandate ... which is to provide nutritional and dietary information."

There was more tomfoolery in September when the British Medical Journal published an investigation that went after the advisory committee, suggesting that it hadn't followed a proper methodology while conceiving its report, and accusing it of "deleting meat" from the list of recommended foods. But The Verge's own reporting showed that the BMJ's accusations were misleading and false; they seemed designed specifically to serve as ammunition for the meat lobby. A month after its initial publication, the BMJ issued a correction for the article. Finally, in November, 183 scientists signed a letter asking for the retraction of the story. The article can still be found in the BMJ's site today.

The fact that a lot of the advisory committee's more radical recommendations were ignored doesn't mean that the guidelines are a failure. The new guidelines appear to slip in some language that — under the right light — suggests that eating less meat might be beneficial. Take this summary on how Americans should shift their eating patterns:

The U.S. population, across almost every age and sex group, consumes eating patterns that are low in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy, seafood, and oil and high in refined grains, added sugars, saturated fats, sodium, and for some age-sex groups, high in the meats, poultry, and eggs subgroup. [...]

The guidelines almost never explicitly say that people should eat less meat — and certainly make no mention of eating less red meat. They do state that some people are eating too much meat, though. Here's another example:

...evidence from food pattern modeling has demonstrated that lean meats can be part of a healthy eating pattern, but as discussed in Chapter 2, average intakes of meats, poultry, and eggs, a subgroup of the protein foods group, are above recommendations in the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern for teen boys and adult men.

For Gardner, that small change is a positive one, even if it's hard to decipher. "They actually said that! It's not explicit, but it's as close as they have come to saying eat less meat, poultry, and egg."

The guidelines also make a point of stating that "people do not eat food groups and nutrients in isolation." Rather, the different components of a person's eating pattern can have interactive and even cumulative effects on their health. So this year's guidelines shouldn't be seen as a "rigid prescription," the guidelines state, "but rather, an adaptable framework in which individuals can enjoy foods that meet their personal, cultural, and traditional preferences and fit within their budget."

The stuff you've heard for the last five years still stands

So, what does this all mean for the everyday American who just wants to eat well without consuming too much crap? It means that most the stuff you've heard for the last five years still stands: the guidelines recommend a variety of sources of protein, vegetables, fruit, oils, whole grains, and low-fat and fat-free dairy. They also recommended limiting the intake of sodium, trans fats, and saturated fats. Finally, the report says for the first time that less than 10 percent of calories consumed each day should come from added sugars. And all that other, more radical stuff will have to wait.

"The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report has planted a very important seed that I hope others will see blossom and thrive," says Perez-Escamilla. "A lot of the advisory committee's recommendations didn't make it into the guidelines, and the health professional community is disappointed," Gardner says. "However, we realize that dietary guidelines are hugely political issues, and making huge changes is honestly not realistic — so there are silver linings."