Last week’s alarming (and excellent) WaPo piece by Laura Reiley — “How the Trump administration limited the scope of the USDA’s 2020 dietary guidelines” — exposes another example of its abuse of science and “truth” to boost profits for big business at the expense of everyone else. No one is surprised when Trump and cronies make things worse; but the really depressing part of this story is that misrepresenting the advice of dietary experts isn’t at all unique to this administration.
Big Food and its allies have long influenced our government’s dietary advice to expand sales and profits, and that’s compounded the public health problems that result from the typical American diet. As it happens, diet causes more deaths in America than literally anything else, and our lifespans are declining as a result.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, introduced in 1980 as the product of a special Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, are the U.S. government’s official advice on how we should eat to be healthy. Since then, they’ve been revised and re-published every five years, informed by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, comprising scientists under the supervision of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture. The guidelines drive the nutrition considerations of government food purchasing and other food programs, some $100 billion in food commerce every year.
From the very beginning, the guidelines were stained by corruption. Some of the experts — sometimes the majority of them — had ties to the industry, and would never vote for recommendations that would curtail its power to sell whatever it wanted. But that’s not the whole story.
When it was established in 1968, the Select Committee itself had the mission of addressing the issue of hunger in America, which had gained attention in the ’60s. But the committee was quickly forced to acknowledge that death from heart disease-related illness was becoming an epidemic, and that diet was at least in part responsible.
Questions abounded at the Hearings on Diet Related to Killer Diseases: What did cholesterol have to do with it all? Saturated fat, or even meat itself? Sugar? George McGovern, a Democratic senator from South Dakota and committee chair, called in scientists to seek expert consensus about how Americans should eat for health and longevity.
Leading the testimonies was Mark Hegsted, a high-profile Harvard researcher who was revealed in 2016 to have been part of a conspiracy to direct nutrition research away from sugar because the industry didn’t want us to think it was bad for us. (It is.) Despite that, at first the Select Committee produced relatively sound recommendations, making suggestions that Americans eat less sugar and cut back on meat, eggs, and butter, all of which contain the high levels of saturated fat associated with heart disease.
At that point, industry threw a hissy fit and questioned the dominant science, calling in its own scientists to testify, cast aspersions, and create the usual obfuscation and doubt (see “tobacco” and “Merchants of Doubt” if you’re interested in learning more), while castigating government for making audacious claims about science that wasn’t “settled.”
Here’s the real question: How much certainty is necessary for the government to act to protect its people from harm?
In diet — as in smoking — absolute proof is unachievable. There are no crash test dummies, and — just as you can’t force people to smoke — you can’t get a group of people to eat only sugar while controlling for other possible factors. This results in a “How can you be sure?” argument, which allows industry to call for ever more research, and to find (and, if necessary, pay) a researcher who’s willing to present the other side against otherwise conclusive evidence.
The saber-rattling and deception resulted in neutered guidelines that protected the sales prospects of corporate livestock producers as well as hawkers of sugar and ultraprocessed foods.
Needless to say, in the Trump era, the situation is even more perverse. Now that nutrition science unequivocally demonstrates that our diets need to change, and radically — we all know that means eating more minimally processed plant foods and fewer sugars, ultraprocessed foods, and red and processed meats — industry has a new strategy. Instead of adding more “science” to the mix, it’s using its power to perform subtraction. USDA and HHS released a list of 80 questions for the committee to investigate and consider in formulating 2020’s dietary guidelines, severely limiting the scope of the inquiry: ultraprocessed foods, sodium levels, and — you guessed it — overconsumption of red meats and processed meats are out of bounds for forming recommendations. The very foods we need recommendations about!
Lest you think this is limited to Republican or Moronic administrations: During Obama’s second term, experts developing the 2015 Dietary Guidelines wanted to consider the sustainability of foods in their recommendations. This was immediately challenged by the methane-belching beef industry and doomed by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, the Obama-appointed Iowan whose job, as we now see clearly, was to keep at bay as many progressive food and farming innovations as possible. Yet given the short- and long-term effects that a warmer planet is already having on human health and safety — not to mention every farmer in the world — the notion that sustainability isn’t diet-related is absurd.
Leveraging its influence in HHS and USDA, industry is putting blinders on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to ignore most critical health research that would result in recommendations that would hurt the bottom line of soda, candy, snack and junk food, grocery, and fast food companies. And of course the Trump administration is happy to cooperate.
The indisputable science that will be forcibly ignored is the science that the food that industry most favors selling: It is exactly the food that is bringing us catastrophic levels of premature death from heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and a litany of cancers.
It’s a public health travesty 50 years in the making that is willfully being continued, and it’s an act of systematic violence against the American people.
Much good research in this area is publicly funded; since we’re paying for it, we should rely on the resulting science and the advice that’s based on it. (We should also be able to rely on universal access to the food that that advice recommends, but that’s Step Two.) Instead, we’re force-fed disease-causing, addictive food proffered by corporations that engage in racialized and manipulative advertising and stack the deck against all of us, especially the poor and people of color.
Now more than ever, it’s easy to see where the federal government stands: with those corporations. Yes, getting Trump out of office is critical work in the next year, but history tells us that getting the food system we deserve is going to take a lot more work than that.
Mark Bittman has written about food and cooking for nearly 40 years, and has published 30 books, including the “How to Cook Everything” series and “VB6.” Newsletter at markbittman.com.
Charlie Mitchell is a journalist and researcher with a specialty in food and agriculture currently based in Des Moines, Iowa.