The process of updating the US government’s dietary guidelines was the subject of much political haranguing in Washington DC over the past year. The document is the bedrock for America’s federal school meals and food programs, which represent billions of dollars in business for the food industry. So when a government panel of nutrition experts suggested in early 2015 that the government include environmental sustainability language, as well as telling Americans to cut back on red and processed meats, it sparked a political firestorm and intense rounds of lobbying from the food industry.
Their efforts look to have worked. The final guidelines, released Thursday (Jan. 7), did not include a mention of environmental sustainability, which would have impacted big meat producers especially, nor was it explicit about reducing consumption of red and processed meats, which have been linked to greater risk of certain health issues, including some cancers.
The guidelines did, however, make sharper recommendations about cutting back on junk food, much of which comes in the form of sugary snacks and sodas. The document advised that Americans should get no more than 10% of their calories from added sugars—a recommendation aimed squarely at products that health advocates have pinned for contributing to America’s obesity epidemic and many chronic health issues.
The US departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services collaborate every five years to update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are supposed to reflect the latest nutrition science. The government this year emphasized the need to shift to healthier foods and drinks, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low and fat-free dairy products, seafood, and lean meats and eggs.
That shift includes advising people to opt to cook with vegetables rather than butter, and to diversify how they consume proteins by occasionally opting for legumes and seafood rather than relying entirely on red meats, for example.
The guidelines have been criticized in the past for using technical language that can be difficult for the public to understand, including referring to nutrients rather than specific foods, and caloric intake. This year there are detailed characterizations for how to approach healthier eating, like carving out a portion of a plate for vegetables and other beneficial foods.
This year’s recommendations have been met with mixed reviews from public health advocates, many of whom were hoping for more explicit language undercutting red meats, sodas, and high-sodium foods.
“Why go through the trouble of updating if you’re going to copy and paste from 2010?” said Michele Simon, a public health lawyer who closely follows the food industry. Simon also represents a coalition of more than 20 plant-based food companies that strongly supported including sharper advice.
Industry groups, though, including the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), were pleased with the final guidelines.