by Marion Nestle
Mar 21 2014

Yesterday, food studies under attack. Today, it’s the dietary guidelines

The food movement must be succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

Now it’s the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s (DGAC’s) turn to come under attack.

The Guidelines:  These are principles of healthful diets aimed at policymakers  (not the general public).

The history:  They have been published every five years since 1980, so we are now in round #8 scheduled for publication in 2015.

The process: Two federal departments, USDA and Health and Human Services, appoint an advisory committee of nutrition scientists.  The committee reviews the science and prepares a report.  Since 2005, the agencies have written the guidelines, not the committee.     

Disclosure: I was a member of the advisory committee for the 1995 Guidelines.

The fireworks: According to ProPolitico Morning Agriculture (behind a pay wall, alas), the committee is attracting unusual attention from the right:

  • The Washington Examiner, writes that “committee members…are hijacking the guidelines to advance a range of ideological agendas having nothing to do with healthy eating.”
  • The Daily Caller asks “Are Progressives Inserting Their Agenda Into Your Diet?” Tuesday.
  • The Washington Free Beacon wants you to “Meet the Radicals Creating the New Federal Dietary Guidelines.”

A clue to what is upsetting these folks comes from the committee’s request for public comments.  It is asking for comments that address:

  • Elements of a whole food system
  • Information on specific food groups or commodities
  • Sustainability metrics that have been implemented or are in development

These, apparently, are fighting words.

Yesterday, Fox News asked why “ivory tower types” were in charge of determining food choices for Americans.

Its story particularly singled out Miriam Nelson, a professor at Tufts (not New York University—could Fox be confusing her with me?):

New York University professor Miriam Nelson, said at the committee’s last meeting, “We need to make sure that the guidelines and the policies are promoting those foods … [that] are sustainably grown and have the littlest impact on the environment.”

…The professors of the DGAC may think their job is save the planet by promoting sustainable agriculture and plant-based diets, but if they don’t understand the real-world implications of their work, they’ll be oblivious to the havoc they’ll wreak on the millions of Americans whose diets hinge on their guidelines.

By this time, the Dietary Guidelines are hardly of interest to anyone but policy wonks (really, they never change all that much).  Cheers to the current committee for injecting some life into them.

The 2015 Guidelines will be fun to watch.

  • Terry Hathaway

    Standard tactics. Any time values outside of the corporate-neoliberal framework are espoused they are attacked as ideological, radical, detached-from-reality or beyond-the-pale, and the status quo framework reconfirmed as concerned with “real world” issues.

    What’s interesting about the attacks is both what they say and what they don’t say. In terms of what they say, it’s interesting that “save the planet” is able to be used perjoratively – one would have thought that concerns with sustainability are fundamentally “real-world” issues. In terms of what they don’t say, if academics (or “ivory tower types”) shouldn’t be involved in the determination of food policy, who should be? The average man on the street? Businessmen?

    It’s funny, actually, the right seems to both admire and despise science. They admire the capacity of “science” to allow didactic truth statements to be made, but despise science (or perhaps scientists) for rarely agreeing with their worldview.

  • Scott Mowbray

    Seems to me that sustainability is really taking off at the community level, as something consumers are concerned about. When that happens, consumer demand becomes an irresistible force, regardless of policy. Policy, and industry, end up chasing consumer demand in an accelerated, socially viral culture… and that’s good news.

  • I think that the biggest challenge that the guidelines face is that the USDA is really the one in charge. If we really wanted to get some good policy, I’d argue that the CDC&P, mostly known only as the CDC, would be there with their Prevention hat on to see that the guidelines really hit the bad food at the heart (pun intended) of so much of the standard American diet.

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  • angry mommie

    Obviously the disconnect is science. Food studies are not food science nor are they nutrition science. This is by design. True, universities foster confusion by housing professors and student of food studies among the sciences, instead of among the arts where they proudly belong. Of course, USDA still clings to some archaic notion scientific validity is somehow part of their mission. When, oh when will USDA finally drop the dusty old science charade and get with the food based program? When we want science we will ask for it (don’t hold your breath)! Until then we eagerly await Michael Pollans next set of wonderful short stories. Those always are so much more interesting because they tell us how to feel about foods and related horror stories of how food production is unsustainable and too far down the path of planetary destruction. Why can’t USDA just throw in the towel and jump on the corporation-bashing bandwagon instead of being stodgy old scientist farts? The president and the first lady should be setting USDA straight on this. It makes me so angry!

  • Timar

    Reading this, I was suddenly overcome by a strange vision of a morbidly obese Charlon Heston, proudly holding a can of Coke in his raised right hand, shouting to an agitated audience: “From my cold, diabetic hands!”. Then the vision was over.

  • Timar

    Reading this I was suddenly overcome by the strange vision of a morbidly obese Charlton Heston, frenetically waving a two-liter Coke bottle while shouting to an agitated audience: “From my cold, diabetic hands!”. Then the vision was over.

  • malachite2

    Must be why just about every ballot measure to label GMOs has failed. Must be consumer demand, couldn’t possibly be the huge influx of money from pro-GMO “business interests.”

  • malachite2

    “they tell us how to feel about foods”–I’ve enjoyed reading Michael Pollan’s books (starting with the “Botany of Desire”), and his forays into the food industry are interesting. But I don’t read his books so I know how to “feel about food.” I can do that for myself and I’d think anyone who enjoys food (or growing fruit/veg, or cooking, or .. ) can do it too.

  • Now this is interesting

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  • Sneha Gupta

    Hey, it’s a nice self sharing story. And it’s true that diabetes is not a fatal disease until we create it with our negligence. From the date of joining in a healthcare company i.e. http//, I paid too many attention on health issues and read many articles and posts of it. Thanks for sharing your personal thoughts.