It’s that time again: the United States Department of Agriculture will soon issue its new dietary guidelines, as it does every five years. These guidelines are controversial in the best of times, as advocates and lobbyists from every corner of the food and nutrition industries battle to get their say, and no one list of guidelines could possibly please all stakeholders. But they are important: the recommendations help set the menu for tens of millions of Americans, notably the kids attending public schools, and ultimately greatly inform the medical establishment’s treatment of diet.
Recent events have conspired to make this perhaps the most contentious edition yet. The coronavirus pandemic has even further highlighted the tragedy of the ever-growing epidemics of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases, and the burden that these conditions place on public health. As has been shown now in innumerable studies, obesity, diabetes and related metabolic disorders make one especially vulnerable to severe illness and death from COVID-19. Now’s as good a time as we’ll ever have to seriously reconsider the ramifications of our poor national diet, an argument advanced by our own contributor Dr. Mariela Glandt as well as several national voices, such as Sarah Reinhardt of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Those voices, as prudent and truthful as they seem, are likely to be disappointed by the dietary experts appointed by the USDA. The panel, predictably, is lousy with ties to industry, and there has been an outcry over the panel’s decisions on which scientific studies to consider and which to ignore. The problems have been so manifest that many groups, both traditional allies and opponents of the process, have demanded that the committee delay its findings.
The USDA has been a lesson in regulatory capture for decades, under administrations both red and blue, but the White House seemed to raise the ante when it nominated Sonny Perdue, who has long faced accusations of mixing business and policy, as Secretary. Worse still, the one influencer that seems to have wrapped its claws around the decision-making process most decisively is the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a lobbying organization that is financed by the absolute giants of international junk food, including Coca-Cola, Nestlé, McDonald’s and Monsanto. In a 2019 article by The New York Times, the ILSI was described as “a shadowy industry group” that fights internationally against restrictions on sugars and processed foods. According to a report by Corporate Accountability, more than half of the advisory committee has ties to ILSI.
If there’s one thing that almost every honest citizen concerned with nutrition can agree upon, vegan and carnivore alike, it’s that highly-processed junk food is a scourge on the nation’s health. To the best of our knowledge, there’s no serious debate about this. But with the ILSI wielding immense influence within the USDA’s high council of scientists – and, by the way, one of the world’s most prominent fans of fast food in the White House – one can hardly hope for much progress in battling the junk food marketers. (By contrast, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reportedly begun to favor an aggressive interventionist anti-obesity strategy, after blaming his own obesity for his almost deadly battle with COVID-19.)
And indeed, our first look at proposed changes, during an 8-hour webinar on June 17, was not encouraging. For a summary of complaints, one could hardly do better than to reread the responses posted by Nina Teicholz live on Twitter. Ms. Teicholz, a vigorous supporter of low-carb diets, has written extensively about the shortcomings of the USDA dietary recommendations. She directs The Nutrition Coalition, a non-profit promoting science-based nutrition policy.
Ms. Teicholz detailed a litany of objections in real-time. In her reading, the committee: relied on “old reviews that the National Academies said were not trustworthy;” needlessly excluded dozens of valuable trials; dismissed known nutritional deficits in the standard diet for toddlers; offered no explanation for how different studies were graded; embarrassingly argued over fundamental definitions; and so on. She pertly concluded, “this is not science.”
Other sources were more measured in their criticism: Politico noted that the panel recommended a reduction in the limit of added sugars (certainly worth applauding), and otherwise described the recommendations as “largely status quo.”
But given the extraordinary scale of diet-related disease in the country, and the mounting evidence of the toll that it takes, one might easily suggest that “status quo” represents a dereliction of duty.