When the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services released the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) earlier this week, it seemed like everyone and her brother had something to say about it. My RSS feed -- admittedly food-centric because I'm a food writer -- overflowed with commentary, largely positive. Why the hubbub? These guidelines, revised every five years as mandated by Congress, form the basis of federal nutrition policy, which influences every aspect of the food industry, from product recipes to school lunch. That's why cookies prominently labeled "made with whole grain" multiplied in the wake of the 2005 DGA. Those cookies are still highly processed and filled with refined sugars, but the report recommended that we eat more whole grains. Industry found a way to implement the guidelines while making a bundle.
This time around, the agencies provided a handful of "selected messages" they'd like us to note:
- Enjoy your food, but eat less.
- Avoid oversize portions.
Foods to Increase
- Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
- Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.
Foods to Reduce
- Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals -- and choose the foods with lower numbers.
- Drink water instead of sugary drinks.
Nothing controversial there, right? In fact, there's much to celebrate. These are smart, healthy messages, delivered in plain language. Heck, our government telling us to cut out sugary drinks (and, yes, that includes juice) is pretty huge, and that bit about filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables is deliciously specific. Plus, I love that they advise us to enjoy our food -- acknowledging that there's more to eating than nutrition. But when you drill down into the actual report, things get a bit murkier.
It's largely an issue of language -- the information is there, with little to complain about in terms of fact, but it's not presented as clearly as you might hope. Marion Nestle, NYU nutrition professor and the author of Food Politics, told me, "Once again, they talk about eating more foods (fruits, vegetables, etc.) but eating less of nutrients (saturated fat, sodium, trans fat etc.). People don't eat nutrients. They eat foods. Why not just say, 'Eat less meat and drink fewer sodas'? Because eating less is very bad for business, and food companies don't like it." Yup, food politics, and maybe even a conflict of interest -- the USDA, one of the two agencies that issues the guidelines, also promotes agricultural products. How can they tell us outright to, for example, avoid high fructose corn syrup, when they're trying to boost America's corn farmers at the same time?
Nestle is not the only one who's pleased overall but somewhat disappointed upon closer inspection. The American Heart Association applauds* the new guidelines but says that the recommended sodium intake -- under 1,500mg per day for children, those 51 and older, all African Americans, and people with certain health factors, and under 2,300mg per day for everyone else -- "actually take an unfortunate step backwards." It seems more people fell into that 1,500mg group in 2005 than do now. But ask salt industry folk if they're happy and the answer is an unequivocal No -- for the opposite reason. They say the sodium restrictions go too far. In my book, industry outrage means the DGA must be doing something right.