The new dietary guidelines give the food industry the clearest map yet of what is necessary for a healthy diet – but no one is fooled by assertions that industry is already in line.
With the exception of the Salt Institute, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans have been welcomed as great news by nearly every part of the food industry. The Salt Institute with its defensive “obesity, not salt, is the main culprit in rising blood pressure rates” may be more realistic than most, not because there is insufficient evidence linking sodium consumption and blood pressure (there is plenty), but because it is at least looking at the bigger picture. America has an obesity problem and we all have our part to play.
Industry should use the guidelines as an opportunity to take a step back and find ways to formulate healthy foods – in smaller portions – especially as Americans are becoming savvier than ever about good nutrition.
The overwhelmingly positive industry reaction is testament to two factors: Firstly, the food industry has some really fantastic PR people behind it, who have managed to focus on the positives for industry, rather than the pervasive ‘eat less’ message behind the new guidelines. No company that makes money from food wants to hear the words ‘eat less’ as a government-endorsed public health message.
The problem is that no one will swallow these cheery messages wholesale.
Secondly, the government has gone to great lengths to avoid upsetting any particular sector. There are some sectors for which the guidelines really are good news. The soy industry, for example, has reacted enthusiastically to the fact that the guidelines endorse soy foods as a good alternative to dairy, and as a good source of vegetarian protein.
The seafood industry too has been quick to applaud the guidelines’ recommendation that Americans eat two portions of seafood a week, and well it might, considering that after a thorough review of available evidence, the USDA has concluded that widespread fears over mercury content in fish are outweighed by the benefits that higher levels of seafood consumption can provide – an issue that has long plagued the industry.
However, on the other side of the equation is the meat industry, which has managed to put a positive slant on the guidelines by saying that recommendations for meat consumption have not changed. Although there is evidence that Americans still consume far more meat than is suggested for optimal health – and more per capita than any other country on the planet – the American Meat Institute has welcomed the fact that the guidelines do not actively discourage meat consumption.
But the guidelines don’t really discourage consumption of anything, which is somewhat incongruous with the ‘eat less’ message.
An incredulous question from an audience member at the guidelines presentation last Monday asked why they don’t just come out and say ‘eat less meat’. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stumbled through his response, fluffing around the issue by mentioning seafood consumption and talking about implications. My strong suspicion is that the USDA doesn’t dare risk upsetting the meat industry.
While the new guidelines talk freely about foods to encourage, foods to limit are buried deep in the 95-page report. Instead, they focus on SoFAS – solid fats and added sugars – an unhelpful euphemism for many of the unhealthy foods in our diets.
Meanwhile, most major food manufacturers have issued statements welcoming the guidelines and outlining how their products fit with their new nutrition messages. In some respects, they do. In others, they do not.
Industry knows very well that the Dietary Guidelines make a difference to the food environment in the United States; they may not drastically alter individuals’ eating behaviors, but they are the touchstone of every federal food program, including school meals, which have the potential to influence the palates and dietary norms of a whole new generation of Americans.
The guidelines are only reviewed every five years, and as such, present a sufficiently rare opportunity for the food industry to be upfront about the nutritional failings of some of its products, to reformulate, and to regain the confidence of consumers, who are increasingly suspicious of industry claims.
Backing an ‘eat less’ message is a difficult stance for industry, but one it must take.
Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef.