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Food for Thought

March 6, 2015

The fact that food has become one of the more polarizing aspects of our culture in recent years is hardly news. So it should come as no surprise that the development of government recommendations about which foods to consume is also becoming a hotly contested issue, within Washington, and in households around the country.

The good news for dairy is that the nutritional evidence favoring our products is so strong that it leaves little room for debate about what federal dietary guidelines should say about milk products. Dairy foods, especially milk, yogurt and cheese, remain the leading source of Vitamin D, calcium and potassium in America’s food supply – and these are three of the four nutrients (along with fiber) identified as most deficient in the American diet. In other words, increasing dairy consumption would help improve people’s diets. For some other foods and nutrients, though, preliminary federal food guidance is raising questions.

The government’s reassessment of dietary advice begins anew every five years, when a special panel of nutrition scientists is convened by the departments of Agriculture, and Health and Human Services, to consider the best evidence about food and public health, and how the first should contribute to the second. A year-long series of hearings just culminated in a report from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The report’s conclusions will affect the choices made in key federal feeding programs, including the school lunch and WIC programs. The findings will also be part of the major, ongoing federal nutrition education effort that has become even more critical in recent years because of the obesity epidemic affecting 155 million adults Americans, and far too many of our children. Before things even reach that point, however, there’s already a simmering controversy in three prominent areas.

First, the committee found that dietary cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern. This means that foods that are significant sources of cholesterol – eggs being the poster child – are no longer on the “bad” foods list. It’s hard to overstate what a sea change this represents in terms of how it alters what has been considered for decades by many health professionals to be the gospel truth about the role of cholesterol in cardiovascular health. The admonition against cholesterol in the diet dates back to the 1970s, when the government was first devising dietary advice. Give some credit to the DGAC for finally acknowledging that decades of misguided belief about the supposed dangers of dietary cholesterol were not supported by the science behind what really contributes to heart disease.

Second, the new report urges consumers to cut down on red meat consumption. This is a lightning-rod recommendation because it lumps all cuts of meat, and potentially most sources of livestock protein, in the same category. In fact, the panel excluded even lean meat from possible sources of healthy foods – because defining what is a “lean” source of meat is open to dispute. Beef and pork producers are concerned about how this finding will be translated in the final report from HHS and USDA. Just like dairy products, meat is an important source of key nutrients that are hard to package together effectively in a vegan diet, so this report is going to be very contentious because of this finding.

And if that weren’t enough cause for some indigestion, the third controversial recommendation relates to the area of sustainability. The DGAC said that Americans should consider the environmental impacts of the foods they eat, with the clear implication that some items on their plates – again, meat in particular – are less desirable because their production, not just their consumption, carries a heavier carbon footprint and has other alleged negative ramifications. This finding is a tough one to swallow because what constitutes “sustainable” is a hard thing to measure – and the committee cited no sound science upon which they based their recommendations. The claim that some foods aren’t as sustainable as others is less sound than the claims against cholesterol were almost 40 years ago. Meat, and indeed, all food groups, need to be assessed not just for their caloric or environmental impact, but for their overall nutrient profile.

The release of the DGAC report is the end of just the first phase of this process. There will be a public comment period until April, after which the federal agencies have to decide which recommendations to implement. Like most things in Washington these days, that process is sure to be a contentious one.

While the news is somewhat mixed, the positive developments bear repeating at the end. Because of the strong body of scientific evidence demonstrating dairy’s important contributions to health, the DGAC report continues to acknowledge the importance of dairy foods, especially non- and low-fat sources. Real dairy foods – not factory-concocted white liquids masquerading as milk – provide an incomparable source of nutrition. As food facts and fads rise and fall, these truths haven’t changed, and we will continue to remind policymakers of it.