After years of upheaval, Dietary Guidelines go down easy

By Spencer Chase

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Jan. 7, 2016 - The latest edition of federal dietary advice isn't drawing unanimous support, but reaction from most quarters has been largely positive.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released this morning, will govern federal food policy for the next five years, so today was a big day in the health and nutrition communities. While there had been talk about potential landmark changes from the previous document while the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) was meeting, that talk has been largely quashed. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, who along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had final say on the guidelines, said people “will be familiar with the majority of our findings.”

The meat and potatoes of the dietary advice is similar to the iteration published in 2010: Fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, then the other half with protein and whole grains, while topping it all off with some low- or non-fat dairy products. Burwell said healthier nutritional choices will lead to increased disease prevention, saving “everyone” money in the long run.

“We may not be able to make broccoli taste like ice cream, but we can help make nutritious choices more understandable so families can make the best decisions for their health and for their home,” Burwell said on a call with reporters.

Because of the limited revisions in the new guidelines, senior USDA and HHS officials told reporters that there are no anticipated changes to the MyPlate icon introduced five years ago. The school lunch program, which is informed by the guidelines, is also unlikely to see any changes, they said.

Lets Talk Food

Marshall Matz, who was general counsel to a congressional committee that published a report in 1977 which eventually led to the Dietary Guidelines, said the newest version is “very well done, excellent.”

“They are science-based and the presentation is much improved from the past,” said Matz, who is now with OFW Law in Washington.  “Interestingly, it is very close to the original Select Committee on Nutrition's report of 1977, ‘Dietary Goals for the United States,' but better presented. USDA and HHS are to be commended.”

While past editions of the guidelines have gotten into specific recommendations on how much of a particular nutrient to consume, this version is focused more on broader dietary patterns. Marianne Smith, senior adviser for science and consumer insights for the International Food Information Council Foundation, said this is a good thing, allowing Americans to adapt the guidelines to their own individual diets.

“When too much emphasis is placed on one food, nutrient, or ingredient, the importance of eating an overall balanced diet with the appropriate number of calories-along with proper levels of physical activity-often gets overlooked,” Smith said.

Barry Carpenter, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, said he was glad to see “a common sense policy document.” Discussions surrounding the dietary guidelines over the past several years left some stakeholders worried that the final version would include language stripping lean meats from healthy dietary patterns.

“The Dietary Guidelines confirm that a variety of dietary patterns can be followed to achieve a healthy eating pattern,” Carpenter said. “Consumers who choose to eat meat and poultry, as 95 percent of Americans do, can continue to enjoy our products as they have in the past.”

Other protein sector groups joined in, saying they were happy to see lean meat remain in federal dietary advice. Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said it “should come as no surprise” that lean meat remains within the government's good graces, and National Cattlemen's Beef Association President Philip Ellis pointed out that 65 percent of the most popular meat cuts sold at retail are already classified as lean cuts.

The guidelines also call for increased dairy intake from current consumption levels. That pleased a coalition of dairy groups, who said in a statement that that the final guidelines “affirms the vital, unrivaled contribution made by dairy foods.”

While the changes in the new guidelines are not substantial, perhaps the most notable is language concerning added sugars. The document recommends limiting added sugars to 10 percent of daily caloric intake, down from the 13 percent currently making up American diets. In a statement, the Sugar Association said the recommendation lacks scientific backing.

“We maintain these ‘added sugars' recommendations will not withstand the scrutiny of a quality, impartial evaluation of the full body of scientific evidence,” the group said. “As with past examples of dietary guidance not based on strong scientific evidence, such as eggs, the ‘added sugars' guidance will eventually be reversed. The lack of scientific rigor in this process has and will continue to result in consumer apathy, distrust and confusion.”

The Sugar Association's statement also referred to the organization's comments submitted in regards to the report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, saying the DGAC “provided no credible scientific evidence” to support the drop to 10 percent. The group said the science the DGAC cited “actually indicates that any observed effect . . . is a function of total calories, from all sources,” not necessarily related to added sugars.

The Dannon Company noted that sugar reduction is something it was already working toward in 100 percent of its products geared toward children and 60 percent of products overall. The company also welcomed suggestions to increase dairy consumption, specifically when it came to recommendations to use yogurt, one of Dannon's chief products, as one of the ways to achieve that increase.

As happy as the meat industry lobbyists are with the inclusion of lean meat in the dietary recommendations, some groups are disappointed that the government didn't stick with the language in the DGAC report. Emily Cassidy, a research analyst with the Environmental Working Group, said USDA and HHS missed an opportunity to encourage a dietary shift.

“The (guidelines) should have clearly called on consumers to eat less meat - both to protect their health and to reduce the harm that meat production does to the environment,” Cassidy said. “The continued call for reducing sodium and sugar will help Americans' health, but the government fails the American people by downplaying the well-documented effects of eating too much meat on people and the environment.”

The American Cancer Society also criticized the document for failing to recommend reduced consumption of red meat.

“The science on the link between cancer and diet is extensive,” Dr. Richard Wender, chief cancer control officer of the American Cancer Society, said in a release. “By omitting specific diet recommendations, such as eating less red and processed meat, these guidelines miss a critical and significant opportunity to reduce suffering and death from cancer.”

Barbara Millen, who chaired the DGAC, did not respond to correspondence from Agri-Pulse.                                           

When concerns were raised in the public about the potential for language concerning sustainability to make its way into the guidelines and lean meat possibly being shown the door, Capitol Hill got involved through appropriations riders. After the new guidelines were published, House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee chair Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., said he appreciated the authors of the document sticking within statutory confines.

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“When I compare the original Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report to the final Dietary Guidelines, it is clear to me and my colleagues that the administration wisely listened to the science and dismissed the interests of political activists,” he said. “I am glad that we were able to beat back this regulatory overreach by the administration's panel and let common sense win the day.”

As young as the new guidelines are, they are already facing their first bit of legal scrutiny. On Wednesday, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, advocates for a plant-based diet, announced a lawsuit against USDA and HHS alleging the two departments allowed food industry lobbying to impact the DGAC's cholesterol recommendations. The group, which otherwise praised the guidelines in a Thursday release, said some DGAC members “came from institutions that were funded by the egg industry” and studies that were “egg-industry-funded” were used in deciding to no longer offer a recommendation on dietary cholesterol.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said he was pleased that the final guidelines incorporated AFBF's concerns and did not include reference to sustainability.

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