September 25, 2018 | ° F

Large food industries impacted latest dietary guidelines


Opinion Column: Under the Microscope


Eat your veggies, finish your fruit and don’t eat too many desserts. I’m sure we’ve all had our moms nag us about this before, and I’m sure most of us have had the food pyramid drilled into our brains in elementary school. So when the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines were published earlier this month, most of us didn’t even bat an eyelash.

But even though the Dietary Guidelines might be repetitive, and most of us would rather chow down on our burger and fries than think twice about whether we have fulfilled our daily quota from each food group, the guidelines do matter. For one, the guidelines impact many federal programs that provide food to women, children, elderly and the impoverished. Although the overall process is quite complicated, the Dietary Guidelines do affect what students eat in their school lunches. For another, the guidelines have a large cultural impact. Many of us, based on previous dietary guidelines, probably have the idea that fats are bad for us, and have substituted fats in our diet with an overload of carbohydrates or artificial sweeteners (after all, fat-free foods will sell only if they taste good somehow). And do you ever wonder why your grandmother puts so much butter in her famous cookies? Maybe it has to do with the fact that butter and margarine constituted one of the seven government-established food groups during the World War II era.

Changes made in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines may have a significant impact on all of us — whether it be what foods are served in the dining hall, or what foods become popular in a few years. That is exactly why it is a big deal that big businesses and industries may be influencing what these Dietary Guidelines tell us to eat. The new guidelines, while based off the most recent nutritional science, must also appease the largest industries and lobbyists.

The most recent guidelines recommend that Americans limit their added sugars to 10 percent of their daily calories in order to stave off diseases like diabetes and heart disease. For the average American, this constitutes a significant change in diet, for most consume a large proportion of their calories from added sugars — particularly in the form of sweet, processed snacks and sugary beverages. It is concerning that the guidelines do not specifically state what foods and beverages to limit. Very few Americans understand what added sugars are, and the guidelines fail to explicitly explain that soda consumption should be limited. This omission is likely the result of the powerful political influence of the sugar and beverage industries.

The guidelines also recommend that teen and adult males limit their protein intake from animal sources, and that everyone limit their intake of saturated fat, which normally comes from meat and dairy foods. Despite recommendations from the advisory committee composed of nutritional scientists, the published guidelines never explicitly say to limit consumption of processed and red meats, foods rich in saturated fat and protein that have been linked to high cancer rates and heart disease. Perhaps, once again, the emission of this explicit and important recommendation has to do with the fact that the red meat industry holds great political influence over the government.

The meat industry may also be responsible for the omission of sustainable food recommendations in the most recent dietary guidelines. For years, many nutritional experts in the advisory committee have been suggesting that the dietary guidelines need to reflect not only what is important for the well-being of the individual, but also what is important for the well-being of the environment and society as a whole. Because environmentally sustainable eating practices involve eating more plants and limiting the consumption of meat, the production of which contributes to pollution, the meat industry likely played a large role in preventing these sustainable recommendations from being included in the final published draft.

While the most recent 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines generally call for dietary recommendations that we have been hearing for years (limiting sodium, cholesterol and fats) and are generally aligned with the most recent scientific evidence, the guidelines could have been more explicit had it not been for the effort of lobbyists. The fact that the financial interests of these industries are encroaching on the public’s health is certainly morally questionable, and you should most certainly keep this in mind when deciding on your next meal.

Vandana Apte is a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior majoring in biotechnology with a minor in women's and gender studies. Her column, “Under the Microscope,” runs monthly on Thursdays.

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Vandana Apte

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