Behavior Change
New USDA Dietary Guidelines Gather Both Criticism and Praise from Brands

Every five years, the USDA releases updates to its dietary guidelines, aimed at helping improve American eating habits. The latest Iteration, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), has left some brands hungry for more, and others perfectly satiated.

The guidelines stayed pretty much the same, continuing to recommend Americans limit their intake of saturated fats, trans fats, added sugars and sodium, and incorporate a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy, oils and proteins into their diet. The most heated debates surround the language on added sugar intake, red and processed meat consumption, alcohol moderation, and sustainable food sourcing.

There was general consensus in the health and environmental advocacy community that recommendations on these topics from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) were largely ignored. The DGAC, made up of medical and scientific professionals, reviewed nutritional research and presented a 571-page report to Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in advance of the released DGA with suggested updates.

The DGA have significant sway over how the food and beverage industry will do business over the next five years, including changes to food labeling, farm subsidies, sales and product ingredients.

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The meat industry was pleased with the omission of any explicit language suggesting Americans should eat less meat, as recommended in the DGAC’s controversial recent report that noted that higher intake of red and processed meat had associated health outcomes such as increased risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer and congenital anomalies. The DGA does, however, mention that shifting toward other sources of proteins such as nuts, seeds and seafood and eating leaner meats can be a part of a healthy diet.

Nutrition experts have expressed their disappointment - including Walter Willet, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University, who told The Verge: “The meat lobby is very powerful in congress.” Willet is referring to the lobbying power and resources that trade groups such as the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) – representing brands such as Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council - put behind this outcome leading up to the DGA release. This included the Hands Off My Hotdog campaign to “inject common sense” into the DGA and public praise by NAMI of the DGA’s lenient language on meat.

Meanwhile, plant-based food brands rallied in support of the DGAC’s recommendation to eat less meat, with 22 companies including The Tofurkey Company, Lightlife and Daiya, signing onto a “Less Meat, More Plants” letter encouraging government officials to make mention of lower intake of red and processed meats in the new guidelines.

A Spoonful (Less) of Sugar

The DGA established that less than 10 percent of the total calories Americans consume per day should come from added sugars, based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet. This was welcome news to nutrition advocates’ ears, as it offers more direction than vague language in past versions to just ‘reduce intake;’ 10 percent of daily calories equates to 12 teaspoons of sugar per day.

The DGA reasons: “Many foods high in calories from added sugars (the two main sources being sugar-sweetened beverages and snacks and sweets) provide few or no essential nutrients or dietary fiber, and therefore, may contribute to excess calorie intake without contributing to diet quality.”

The Sugar Association, representing brands such as Domino Sugar and C&H Sugar Company Inc., came out against the new language, claiming the DGAC put an agenda above scientific evidence.

Nestlé, meanwhile, embraced the DGA with a public statement, noting its efforts to reduce added sugars in products with its revised Nestlé Policy on Sugars.

The added sugar DGA language only adds fuel to the fire for an already declining soda industry. The New York Times reports that U.S. consumption of full-calorie soda has decreased 25 percent over the past 20 years. Simultaneously, news out of Mexico shows that the 10 percent soda tax passed in 2014 caused businesses to see a soda sales decrease of 12 percent more than expected since implementing the tax.

The American Beverage Association, representing Coke and Pepsi, was pleased the DGA designated “high-intensity sweeteners” (or low- to no-calorie sweeteners) as safe for consumption, meaning alternatives to sugar-sweetened beverages are not under attack at the moment.

Sustainability Off the Table

The DGAC’s report suggested language around evaluating the sustainability, or environmental footprint, of food sources, noting it as critical to ensuring food security for future generations. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack made a statement in October that the guidelines would remain limited to the mandated nutritional scope.

Sustainability advocates were not thrilled. Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs called this omission “a shameful abnegation of political responsibility in the face of lobbying pressure,” and over 200 environmental and health organizations signed the My Plate, My Planet petition, in support of the DGAC’s recommendations.

While big brand names didn’t weigh in on the debate around sustainability language, a NAMI representative told NPR that inclusion of sustainability was “clearly out of scope.” This isn’t unexpected, since the environmental impacts of meat production have been increasingly under the microscope in recent years.

Hold Off on That Second Cocktail - But More Coffee, Please

The DGA recommends that Americans who consume alcohol should do so in moderation (one drink per day for women and up to two for men). Diageo, with brands such as Guinness, Crown Royal and Smirnoff, praised the HHS and USDA for emphasizing “there is no ‘drink of moderation,’ only the practice of moderation.”

Coffee brands such as Royal Cup Coffee and Tea are celebrating how the new guidelines “give coffee a thumbs up,” recommending that up to five cups of coffee per day is ok (!).

The one thing brands can count on for future iterations of the DGA is controversy, but they will have to hold their peace for another five years.

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