Why the Government’s New Dietary Guidelines Could Set Off a Food Fight

A closely watched advisory report is due out in the next few weeks.

eggs (flickr:Pietro Izzo).jpg

Feb 18 2015

An obscure advisory panel tasked with helping craft the federal government’s nutritional standards will issue a report in the next few weeks that could have a huge impact on what Americans eat.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) has already garnered headlines because its members are advocating revisions to a decades-old warning about cholesterol consumption. An overview of the committee’s Dec. 15, 2014 meeting says, “Cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.” That benign-sounding statement overturns decades of official dietary advice, and it could prove to be a boon for the egg industry.

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Scientists on the panel are also pushing the government to take a tougher stand on added sugars and want to encourage people to eat “more plant-based foods and lower amounts of meat." The new recommendations could see the government take a tougher line on added sugars and red meat consumption. Though these changes are in line with views of health organizations, they are worrisome to the multi-billion dollar food manufacturing industry, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), because they may lead to costly changes in product formulations.

The nutrition experts want to advise people that added sugars should be limited to 10 percent of someone’s daily caloric intake, a change from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines that said “no more than about 5 to 15 percent of calories from solid fats and added sugars (combined) can be reasonably accommodated in a healthy eating pattern.” Another proposal calls on the U.S. population to consume diets that are “lower in red and processed meats,” a change from earlier guidelines that encouraged people to eat lean beef.

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The U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture aren’t bound by the DGAC’s recommendations when issuing their “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” but they have tended to hew closely to the advisory panel’s recommendations. Those official Dietary Guidelines, updated every five years, then influence everything from the advice your doctor gives you to the school lunches your child receives. Food manufacturers in the past have removed salt, sugar and artificial trans fats in response to concerns about health issues such as obesity and heart disease.

“This is the federal government’s official advice on what to eat,” said Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science and the Public Interest, a watchdog group that is often critical of the food industry. “It's rare for those agencies to ignore a specific recommendation from the committee. However, the government often revises the DGAC's language (largely to make it more understandable to the general public), so it's more likely that the advice to eat less red and processed meat might change.”

As Liebman noted, the DGAC’s proposals aren’t radical. The American Heart Association, for instance, recommended a stricter approach to sugar a few years ago, suggesting a maximum of nine teaspoons per day for men and 6 teaspoons per day for women. The American Cancer Society also encourages people to limit their consumption of red and processed meats, as do other health organizations.

Nonetheless, some groups in the food industry are already pushing back, or at least preparing for a potential fight. The North American Meat Institute, a trade group, denounced the proposal about meat consumption as “arbitrary and capricious,” and arguing that the recommendations ignored the nutritional value that lean meat and poultry provide Americans. “The change was made behind closed doors during a lunch break at the final December 15 meeting, the group said. “Actions made in haste behind closed doors are not rooted in science and do not make good public policy.” 

The Meat Institute also objected to the DGAC's discussion about sustainability and the environmental impact of animal agriculture, arguing the committee lacked the expertise on the issue. It also urged the group to wait on the results of research being conducted by the Institute of Medicine among others.

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The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the 300 largest food manufacturers, is withholding comment on the sugar proposal until the committee’s final report is issued.

“GMA has consistently said that the committee’s recommendations and the guidelines should be based on the best available science,” the organization said in a statement to The Fiscal Times. “We have not seen the 2015 recommendations of the advisory committee, and when they are released, we will be looking at the recommendations for added sugars and a range of other matters.”

As for cholesterol, the changes being considered there are backed by many studies that have questioned the relationship between dietary cholesterol and heart disease. Experts now believe that saturated fats in foods like red meat and cheese have a bigger impact on blood cholesterol levels that the cholesterol in foods like eggs.

Mitch Kanter, executive director of the industry-backed Egg Nutrition Center, told The Fiscal Times that the industry isn’t counting any additional sales before the process behind Uncle Sam’s suggestions are hatched. “We are not doing cartwheels until we read the report,” he said in an interview, adding the industry has argued for the changes throughout the process.

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Per capita-egg consumption is at a multi-decade high thanks to trends such as “breakfast for dinner” and the growing interest in dietary protein — though they are still well below the levels from previous decades. Rising prices for other proteins have helped boost demand as well.

“The growth in eggs have been in specialty eggs,” said Charlie Lanktree, chief executive of Eggland’s Best, which is benefitting from the trend. “We have experienced 18 years of double-digit unit growth.”

The new government recommendations could further fuel that trend.

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