The United States Dietary Advisory Committee (DGAC) has released its scientific report, the latest step in the slow process of revising the federal nutrition guidelines. If there’s a headline for ASweetLife readers, it’s probably this: the committee has recommended a 40% reduction in added sugar consumption. Good news. But does it go far enough?
The previous dietary guidelines, in effect from 2015-2020, recommended that Americans consume less than 10% of their calories from added sugars. That recommendation has been dialed down to just 6%, a meaningful improvement and certainly one worth celebrating. For reference, the average American over the age of 1 now gets 13% of his or her calories from added sugars: more than double the new recommendation.
The federal nutrition guidelines are updated every five years. Next up in the process, officials from the United States Department of Agriculture and the US Department of Health and Human Services will assess the advisory committee’s findings and incorporate them into the final product, the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” that represent the federal government’s official nutrition recommendations. These guidelines are hugely influential, forming the backbone of nutrition policy in public schools, hospitals, nursing homes and the military, and driving decision-making far beyond. One can hope that the change might spur some reform in, for example, the average school cafeteria, which offers remarkably unhealthy food that is often specially formulated to just barely satisfy the current nutritional targets.
This most recent edition of the USDA Dietary Guidelines has been embroiled in controversy for months. Under any circumstances, the debate over which studies and policy priorities should be considered is bound to be contentious, as advocates and lobbyists argue their sides from every conceivable angle. One can hardly envy the job of the committee trying to balance entreaties from such natural opponents as vegans and the meatpacking industry, or Monsanto and environmentalists. But this year’s edition received an extra dose of notoriety and suspicion when it was revealed that more than half of those on the USDA’s panel of experts have ties to the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a lobbying group funded by a constellation of the world’s most prominent junk food mega-corporations (Coca-Cola, Nestlé, McDonald’s, etc.). There were other examples of industry capture on display: the leaders of new subcommittees on nutrition for infants and pregnant or breastfeeding mothers came from, where else? The baby food industry. Decisions to consider some nutrition studies and not others engendered confusion, disappointment and mistrust, and led to calls to delay and reform the process.
In retrospect, it is perhaps a wonder – or a testament to the strength of the scientific evidence – that the committee recommended a reduction in added sugar at all. If you dive into the committee’s analysis, it turns out that the recommendation of limiting added sugar to “6% or less of total calories” is an upper limit only applicable in the rare best case scenario of an individual that otherwise eats a recommended diet of nutrient-dense foods. But Americans, as whole, eat less fruit, veggies and dairy than recommended, and get far too many of their grains from unhealthy, highly processed starches. Almost nobody achieves the recommendations for nutrient density that would allow this small measure of sugar as a treat.
The committee’s discussion, in fact, makes it clear that there’s no known nutritional benefit to sugar, and colossal downsides. This raises the question: did the DGAC do enough? Is there a compelling reason to approve of any percentage of added sugar consumption? We’re not unrealistic enough to think that Americans could or would give up sugar overnight, but an unambiguous message that added sugar is always unhealthy could begin to shift perceptions and reframe sugar as a rare treat, and provoke some rejection of how omnipresent it is in our diets today. Right now, as the coronavirus pandemic has even further highlighted the harm of obesity and diet-related chronic disease, is a perfect time to act for change.
The committee’s other recommendations have been neatly described as “status quo.” But status quo may be insufficient in a United States that is experiencing an epidemic of severe diet-related illnesses. The DGAC’s report itself plainly states that “more than 70 percent of Americans have overweight or obesity,” problems that are additionally drivers “for prevalent diet-related chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease (CVD), type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.” At the same time, according to the report, an estimated 37 million Americans lack reliable access to healthy food, and it is our most vulnerable citizens that will have their diets most directly determined by federal guidelines.
Dr. Sarah Hallberg, the medical director at Virta Health and an advocate for low-carb diets, responded to the release of the scientific report with a Twitter thread that lamented how little the new recommendations actually do to promote healthy eating:
Here is something that really disturbs me. I asked @USDANutrition @TeamNutrition ‘s Brandon Lipps this really important question to which I could not get an answer. “There is a 9-year old African American boy who lives in urban – anywhere. He is already struggling with obesity at his young age. He eats breakfast and lunch at school (when we had school), and at night his dinner is determined by government subsidies. Will the 2020 US Dietary Guidelines help this child?” Of course he had no answer because he and everyone else involved know that the answer is no.
If you’re interested in diving into the scientific report, here are all 835 pages in PDF form.