The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services this week released the latest edition of the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans," a collection of largely common-sense nutrition advice (drink more water, switch to fat-free milk, eat more fruits and vegetables) that every five years produces cackles from the food industry.
In the middle of all this, the USDA in particular is caught in an awkward spot, putting the government's seal of approval on some foods over others.
"You seem to be ducking all the meat questions we've had," pressed a reporter on a conference call this week with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who then proceeded to duck the next one. Vilsack was more interested this week in talking up the advice that Americans eat more fish than the unspoken notion that you might decrease your meat intake in order to do that.
"The guidelines and the food guide have very long histories of reflecting the dual mission of the Department of Agriculture," said New York University professor Marion Nestle, "which is on the one hand to promote American agriculture products, do everything it can to sell more of them and, on the other hand, to advise the public about diet and health."
In other words, the entire exercise of producing dietary guidelines is fraught with an inherent conflict of interest. The New York Times highlighted the contradiction in November with an unsettling story ("While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales") about a USDA marketing program that has been working to get more cheese into American diets — even helping Domino's invent a pizza with 40 percent more cheese — even as the USDA is leading the government's effort to fight epidemic obesity.
The new dietary guidelines, now in their seventh edition, raise a similar dilemma: If it's not possible for the USDA to truly stand up for your cholesterol count and the cattle ranchers of America at the same time, should it really be in the business of producing dietary guidelines? Could another government agency do the job better? Should government even be doing this at all?
The Department of Agriculture began issuing food guides in the early 20th century. For more than 50 years, the advice focused on what Americans needed to eat more of to have nutritious diets. But by the 1970s, federal welfare programs had helped ease nearly all Americans out of abject poverty and malnutrition, and a different problem was developing throughout the country: chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, which were increasingly linked by scientists to diet.
Government, for the first time, had to figure out how to start talking about eating less.
In 1977, the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs released a report advising Americans to consume less red meat.
"It was indescribably controversial," said Nestle, who's written several influential books on food politics. "There were congressional hearings. There were headlines in newspapers. It was just beyond-belief controversial — the idea that a government committee would be suggesting that people eat less meat."
The year 1977 was the last time the federal government ever said this.
"The committee had to change the report by the end of the year, revise it," Nestle said. "And that's when the euphemisms started."
They have continued right through the newest guidelines, which will be followed a few months from now with an update of the government's equally contentious food pyramid. Now, when the government wants to encourage us to eat more of something, officials identify that food by name ("fish"). When they want us to eat less of something, they instead talk in nutrient-speak: Eat less saturated fat and cholesterol (which happen to enter the American diet primarily through meat and diary products).
"No industry wants to be told that people are supposed to be eating less of its products, and they all complain bloody murder," Nestle said. "And because of the way our political system works, they fund election campaigns."
So why even bother with the treacherous exercise? Nestle, who sat on the scientific advisory committee that helped update the guidelines in 1995, believes they're important even if they're flawed. Most Americans may not do their weekly meal planning with the aid of the USDA, but these guides govern, in a sense, how the federal government serves food, whether through school lunch reimbursement or food assistance programs.
Nestle thinks the National Academies' Institute of Medicine might have less of a conflict in producing the guidelines. But advisers there, still only human, she points out, may ultimately be subject to the same pressures.
"The idea that these are science-based is only partially true — they're science-based as modified by concerns of the impact of the guidelines on the food industry," she said. "As long as corporations are permitted to fund election campaigns, we'll never have dietary guidelines that are truly science-based, or based as much on science as they can be."