January 28, 2021

Civil Eats: Questions Remain about Big Food’s Influence on the New Dietary Guidelines

Excerpted from Civil Eats; written by Greta Moran

When the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Department of Agriculture (USDA), released new Dietary Guidelines for Americans on December 29, 2020, they looked almost identical to the ones released five years earlier. There were new guidelines related to pregnancy, breastfeeding, and children under two, but to those who’d been paying attention to the process, what stood out was what had not changed.

Most glaringly, the guidelines failed to take up key recommendations from the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the group of experts responsible for preparing a detailed report intended to inform the final guidelines. This year, that document was 835 pages long and included recommendations for lowering the amount of recommended daily sugar from 10 percent of one’s daily calories to 6 percent, as well as limiting alcohol consumption to one drink a day for both men and women.

None of these recommendations made it into the final guidelines.

For years, food policy experts have been concerned that the “go-to source” on healthy eating has failed to keep pace with nutrition science, often to the benefit of major food and beverage companies that wield considerable influence over the guideline setting process.

“This is a movie we’ve seen before,” said Sarah Reinhardt, the lead food systems and health analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The scientific advisory committee publishes a fairly thorough, scientific report using rigorous methods. And when the final guidelines come out, suddenly the federal government has walked back some of the most significant recommendations.”

While the direct impact of corporate influence over the process is hard to quantify, it’s worth a look into the many points at which food companies—and the trade groups they pay to do their lobbying—may have impacted this latest process.

Potential for Influence at Every Stage

Beyond public comments and lobbying members of Congress, corporations also have the opportunity to influence the guidelines throughout the process, from the selection of the advisory committee to the final guidelines.

“At every stage, we are seeing such troubling influence by the industry,” said Ashka Naik, the research director at Corporate Accountability. “The process is vulnerable and the industry has been exploiting it for its own good for decades.”

Naik says the first point of vulnerability to corporate influence is the nomination process to the advisory committee. It is now commonplace for food industry trade groups to nominate potential members. And while the HHS and USDA secretaries have the final say in the selection process, they often have their own ties to industry. In this latest case, both Azar and Perdue had a legacy of catering to major industries.

As the American Prospect reported, nine out of 20 of the committee members were nominated by the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), which includes 32 corporations as “sustaining partners.” These include the Sugar Association, Nestlé Nutrition, Cargill, Kellogg Company, and the National Dairy Association. Trade groups, such as the American Beverage Association, the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), and SNAC International, also secured nominees.

As a result of this process, 75 percent of the participants on the advisory committee have ties to corporations or trade associations representing the food and beverage industries. In addition, Corporate Accountability found that more than 50 percent of the advisory committee members have ties to International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a shadow “pro-sugar” industry group described by the New York Times as “almost entirely funded by Goliaths of the agribusiness, food, and pharmaceutical industries,” including Coca-Cola (until earlier this month), DuPont, PepsiCo, General Mills and Danone. (ILSI declined to comment for this article.)

Dr. Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, a participant on the advisory committee and the chair of the nutrition department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was not nominated by an industry group. And, like Reinhardt, she saw the process as a rigorous one.

“I was disappointed that the recommendations for both added sugar and alcohol were not carried forward in the guidelines,” said Mayer-Davis. “That was the best recommendation that we could come up with the data that we had.”

But she added that “there wasn’t any point in time when I felt like there was industry influence” over the committee’s process. And while the final recommendation to keep sugar intake at 10 percent of daily calories is higher than the committee’s recommended 6 percent, she sees it as a step in the right direction, given the fact that sugar currently makes up 13 percent the average American’s calories.

“The most important message for the public is to reduce intake of added sugar,” she said. “Obviously, the current recommendation and our recommendation are both lower than what the average intake is in the population. So, we’re consistently saying ‘eat less sugar.’”

 Read the full article here.

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