On Monday morning, I woke to the news that the US government agencies USDA and HHS had released their latest dietary guidelines. The emphasis this time seemed to be about reducing our salt intake. On average, Americans consume 3,500 mg of sodium every day. The new guidelines recommend reducing this to at least 2,300 mg per day for the not-at-risk population (at risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, children etc.) and 1,500 mg per day for the at-risk population.
So, how bad are we Americans in our eating ? I liked this graphic from the report.
The USDA and HHS put out these guidelines every five years. This year’s report has been praised for their bluntness compared to the complicated and less accessible reports of the past (not that most of us even read these reports, including the current USDA Secretary, Tom Vilsack, who said that he has never read the report till he got this job). For example, on page 66, they explicitly advocate reducing the amount of pizza and warn that many foods that are labelled “Whole Grain” or “100% Wheat” may not be whole grain at all. One applauded that they explicitly said “fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables” instead of the more vague “eat more vegetables”.
The Unhealthy Ecosystem
Another graphic that I liked from the report is this:
While we may quibble over the size of the individual factor compared to the rest of the factors, the ecosystem we live in is a major contributor to the unhealthy lifestyle that we’re a part of.
By now, many of us know that they cannot just put out scientifically sound advice without facing the wrath of the food industry. I first found out about this via Michael Pollan, a lucid writer and a leading journalist probing behind the malaise of our contemporary eating culture and the unhealthy practices of the American food industry and their effects. In an illuminating and insightful article titled “Unhappy Meals” back in 2007, he wrote the following about a defining moment in the advent of our current eating fad:
“No single event marked the shift from eating food to eating nutrients, though in retrospect a little-noticed political dust-up in Washington in 1977 seems to have helped propel American food culture down this dimly lighted path. Responding to an alarming increase in chronic diseases linked to diet — including heart disease, cancer and diabetes — a Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, headed by George McGovern, held hearings on the problem and prepared what by all rights should have been an uncontroversial document called “Dietary Goals for the United States.” The committee learned that while rates of coronary heart disease had soared in America since World War II, other cultures that consumed traditional diets based largely on plants had strikingly low rates of chronic disease. Epidemiologists also had observed that in America during the war years, when meat and dairy products were strictly rationed, the rate of heart disease temporarily plummeted.
Naïvely putting two and two together, the committee drafted a straightforward set of dietary guidelines calling on Americans to cut down on red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm, emanating from the red-meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee, and Senator McGovern (who had a great many cattle ranchers among his South Dakota constituents) was forced to beat a retreat. The committee’s recommendations were hastily rewritten. Plain talk about food — the committee had advised Americans to actually “reduce consumption of meat” — was replaced by artful compromise: “Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake.”
A subtle change in emphasis, you might say, but a world of difference just the same. First, the stark message to “eat less” of a particular food has been deep-sixed; don’t look for it ever again in any official U.S. dietary pronouncement. Second, notice how distinctions between entities as different as fish and beef and chicken have collapsed; those three venerable foods, each representing an entirely different taxonomic class, are now lumped together as delivery systems for a single nutrient. Notice too how the new language exonerates the foods themselves; now the culprit is an obscure, invisible, tasteless — and politically unconnected — substance that may or may not lurk in them called “saturated fat.”
The linguistic capitulation did nothing to rescue McGovern from his blunder; the very next election, in 1980, the beef lobby helped rusticate the three-term senator, sending an unmistakable warning to anyone who would challenge the American diet, and in particular the big chunk of animal protein sitting in the middle of its plate. Henceforth, government dietary guidelines would shun plain talk about whole foods, each of which has its trade association on Capitol Hill, and would instead arrive clothed in scientific euphemism and speaking of nutrients, entities that few Americans really understood but that lack powerful lobbies in Washington. This was precisely the tack taken by the National Academy of Sciences when it issued its landmark report on diet and cancer in 1982. Organized nutrient by nutrient in a way guaranteed to offend no food group, it codified the official new dietary language. Industry and media followed suit, and terms like polyunsaturated, cholesterol, monounsaturated, carbohydrate, fiber, polyphenols, amino acids and carotenes soon colonized much of the cultural space previously occupied by the tangible substance formerly known as food. The Age of Nutritionism had arrived.”
And this emphasis on nutrients hasn’t vanished. As Marion Nestle, a professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU notes in her blog:
“They still talk about foods (fruits, vegetables, seafood, beans, nuts) when they say “eat more.” But they switch to nutrient euphemisms (sodium, solid fats and added sugars) when they mean “eat less.” They say, for example: “limit the consumption of foods that contain refined grains, especially refined grain foods that contain solid fats, added sugars, and sodium.” This requires translation: eat less meat, cake, cookies, sodas, juice drinks, and salty snacks.”
In a column on NYT, Mark Bittman provides some other suggestions to change the ecosystem, suggestions such as reducing government subsidies on processed food (what!, I didn’t know we subsidised the manufacture of processed food), subsidising sustainable meat production and farming, taxing unhealthy foods and their advertisements, and enforcing truthful labelling of food products. One of the interesting ideas he lists is the breakup of the USDA and a greater empowerment of FDA. He writes:
“Currently, the U.S.D.A. counts among its missions both expanding markets for agricultural products (like corn and soy!) and providing nutrition education. These goals are at odds with each other; you can’t sell garbage while telling people not to eat it, and we need an agency devoted to encouraging sane eating.”
The reactions from the food industry has been predictable. The US Beverage Association has lashed out against the report:
“To suggest that Americans ‘drink water instead of sugary drinks’ fails to be grounded in the totality of the science,” Dr. Maureen Storey, senior VP for science policy for the ABA, told just-drinks. “If consumers are seeking ways to reduce caloric intake, our industry provides myriad no-and low-calorie and smaller-portion beverage options, in addition to bottled water. While many consumers may enjoy tap or bottled water, beverages with no- and low-calorie sweeteners are more appealing to others and may in fact help people lose weight or maintain a healthy weight,” Storey added. “This is a position supported by health organisations including the American Dietetic Association.”
And the American Salt Institute calls the report “Drastic, Simplistic and Unrealistic”.
But they don’t need to worry. With the emphasis on sodium, I see a future filled with “reduced sodium” versions of products, much like the “carb free” or “sugar free” versions that now hound us. One more choice. And by the way, does “reduced sodium” automatically include reduced sugar or will we have all sorts of combinations of products to choose from. And if you think this is just a spoof, here is what the report in NYT had to say:
“David S. Smith, a vice president at Campbell Soup who oversees research and development, said his company was offering reduced-sodium versions of hundreds of its products, in some cases replacing regular salt with smaller amounts of sea salt.”