Lean meat, sustainability play active role in final DGAC report

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 19, 2015 - The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released its final report today, setting the stage for a nutrition policy battle involving lean meat and sustainability that is expected to play out through the rest of the year.

The report, published on DietaryGuidelines.gov, is the final project of the 14-member panel's 18-months of work. The DGAC was tasked with providing a scientific report that will be used to update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the basis of federal food and nutrition policy, symbolized most recently by the USDA's MyPlate nutrition guide. The secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services will use the DGAC's recommendations to write the final guidelines.

Lets Talk Food

Committee observers - especially those in agriculture - were keeping a close watch on the panel's proceedings because of indications its report might include language concerning sustainability and changes in recommendations for meat intake.

In the report, the committee is sticking with much of the same language and rationale regarding sustainability as voiced in previous public meetings. The DGAC mentions sustainability as an additional reason to comply with the guidelines, arguing that healthier diets - those heavier in fruits and vegetables and lower in animal proteins - are associated with “positive environmental outcomes.” In the report, the committee classifies positive environmental outcomes as those “lower in greenhouse gas emissions and more favorable land, water, and energy use.”

“Furthermore,” the report asserts, “sustainable dietary patterns can be achieved through a variety of approaches consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and, therefore, (the government should) offer individuals many options and new opportunities to align with personal and population health and environmental values systems.

“Healthy, sustainable dietary patterns also may provide new themes for consumer education and communication on lifestyle practices that can promote food security now and for future generations and create a ‘culture of health' at individual and population levels.”

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The panel also recommends offering “consumer-friendly information that facilitates understanding the environmental impact of different foods in food and menu labeling initiatives.”

The committee also recommends action to “enhance what is already being done by the private and public sectors to improve environmental policies and practices around production, processing, and distribution within individual food categories.”

Stakeholders were also keeping a watchful eye on how the committee's work may impact lean and red meats. At the final public DGAC meeting in December, the committee removed lean meat as a characteristic of a healthy diet, infuriating meat and beef groups alike. In the final report, the committee recommends a lowered intake of red and processed meats, sticking to its guns that a healthy diet pattern is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low- and non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts. It also suggests moderate intake of alcohol in age-appropriate adults and low consumption of sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.

However, the report says in a footnote that a healthy diet can be achieved while including red and processed meats.

“As lean meats were not consistently defined or handled similarly between studies, they were not identified as a common characteristic across the reviews,” a footnote in the report said. “However, as demonstrated in the food pattern modeling of the Healthy U.S.-style and Healthy Mediterranean-style patterns, lean meats can be a part of a healthy diet pattern.”

While this language is not the full-fledged sign of support meat and livestock groups were hoping for, the footnote's inclusion shows the committee might not be advocating against the inclusion of lean beef and other meats in a healthy diet.

Other changes from previous guidelines:

  • The committee dove deeper into dietary patterns, adding how the guidelines could fit into a vegetarian diet and a Mediterranean-style diet, a plant-based diet that emphasizes eating fish and poultry regularly but red meat only a few times per month. This is in addition to the Healthy U.S.-style diet, which was typically considered as the recommended diet by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The patterns include recommendations at 12 different calorie levels based on age, sex, and activity level.
  • Sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars are all recommended to be reduced in the average dietary intake. The committee suggests replacing added sugars in beverages not with low-calorie sweeteners, but with water or other healthier options. The panel supports improved labeling and other campaigns to improve awareness of sodium, saturated fats, and added sugars in foods and beverages as well as reformulation of products and improved marketing of those healthier products.
  • The committee said alcohol could be included as part of a healthy diet, but only in moderation and only in age-appropriate adults. People who don't already drink aren't encouraged to start drinking and take advantage of alcohol's moderate health benefits, because the committee also pointed to the correlation between moderate alcohol intake and “increased risk of violence, drowning, and injuries from falls and motor vehicle crashes.”
  • Caffeine could also be included at moderate levels, the committee said. The committee concluded that moderate caffeine intake is not associated with negative long-term health outcomes, but cautioned that caffeine can be associated with intake of other high-calorie items such as sugar and cream in coffee.
  

Publication of the report kicks off a 45-day comment period on its contents. USDA and HHS, the agency with the administrative lead on the 2015 guidelines, will be seeking comments from the public and other federal agencies. At the close of the comment period, USDA and HHS will jointly work to produce the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are expected to be finalized and published late this year.

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