Every five years, as mandated by the Nutrition Act, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) create and disseminate a new edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, with the most recent being the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020. Yet these guidelines represent food industry interests, not current science. Let’s find out the truth: how are the Dietary Guidelines developed?
- 1. Who develops the Dietary Guidelines?
- 2. What are the Dietary Guidelines based on?
- Lobbying of the Dietary Guidelines furthers chronic disease and health injustice
- How can we fix the development of the Dietary Guidelines?
- What can the public do to impact how the Dietary Guidelines are developed?
1. Who develops the Dietary Guidelines?
The truth is that the USDA, the HHS, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, food industry lobbyists and Congress develop the Dietary Guidelines. Ultimately, advice is based on industry interests over science. This is because 1) the USDA’s role is to promote the consumption of domestic agriculture, 2) clear conflicts of interest exist in the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, and 3) because special interest groups lobby the USDA, HHS and Congress to support the financial interests of the animal agriculture industry.
1. The USDA
First and foremost, the USDA has control over the final edition of the Dietary Guidelines. Some of the USDA’s top goals are to “maximize the ability of American agricultural producers to prospect,” to “promote American agricultural products,” and to “provide all Americans access to a safe, nutritious and secure food supply.”
Both the HHS and USDA are subject to significant lobbying. However, many more lobbyists sponsored by the animal agriculture industry lobby the USDA than HHS. Additionally, the USDA is involved in the checkoff program and has explicitly conflicting goals, unlike HHS. Clearly, HHS is not impacted by the animal food industry to the same extent that the USDA is.
The USDA has several conflicts of interest in its management of the Dietary Guidelines. Its role is both to promote and subsidize US agriculture AND to advise Americans on what to eat. It uses farmers’ taxes to fund mandatory marketing (checkoff programs) for animal products. A clear conflict of interest exists here: the USDA oversees these checkoffs to subsidize and promote the consumption of animal products while also producing (along with HHS) the federal nutrition guidelines.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) operates within the executive branch of the federal government. Its mission is to “enhance the health and well-being of all Americans, by providing for effective health and human services and by fostering sound, sustained advances in the sciences underlying medicine, public health and social services.” It includes the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), among others.
In the 1970s, both the USDA and HSS wanted control over nutrition promotion. Congress granted primary responsibility to the USDA in order to prevent HHS from “issuing independent dietary advice that might adversely affect agricultural interests.” While on paper, the USDA and HHS are supposed to work jointly to develop the guidelines, the USDA has the final say.
3. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee
According to a 2022 study published in Public Health Nutrition, 95% (19 of 20) of committee members had conflicts of interest with the food and/or pharmaceutical industries. About 60% of these conflicts of interest were due to research funding and/or being a member of an advisory of an executive board.
Members have included individuals funded by the American Meat Institute, the egg and dairy boards, McDonald’s, the Sugar Association and Coca Cola, for instance .Many academics depend on funding to conduct their research. While they don’t always collaborate with industry with ill intentions, this can clearly lead to funding bias.
Yet the companies that fund their research do expect a return on their investment. There have been clear instances in which this conflict of interest led to. For example, several committee members have come from institutions funded by the egg industry and relied on egg industry-funded research findings when they removed limits on dietary cholesterol.
The American Egg Board had directly nominated one of these members, and the other tree were receiving research grants funded by the American Egg board. The committee then dropped the cholesterol limit, saying it was no longer “a nutrient of concern for overconsumption,” without reviewing relevant research. To achieve this, the American Egg board spent several million dollars to change federal policies and make cholesterol appear safe.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recommended the USDA disclose all “financial and nonfinancial biases and conflicts” of the committee and document how they were mitigated. In January 2023, the Nutrition Coalition again urged the USDA and HHS to disclose conflicts of interest. However, the USDA has not complied with these recommendations.
4. Food industry lobbyists and former lobbyists
Firstly, lobbyists provide donations and gifts to USDA officials. Secondly, private sector lobbyists often become government officials and vice versa. This happens through job exchanges called “the revolving door.” As such, a USDA official might be in charge of regulating the lobbyists they used to work with. Unsurprisingly, these officials have been shown to prioritize the interests of the animal food industry over that of consumers.
There is no meaningful judicial review of the Dietary Guidelines; thus, power to modify them lies with members of Congress, who typically receive funding from industry. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee submits its recommendations to the HHS and USDA. The USDA and Senate then censor them according to what the food industry wants the public to hear.
When the Committee report was being developed for the 2015 Guidelines, it included several bold recommendations. These included: warning against sugary beverages and artificial sweeteners, limiting cholesterol, and eating less red and processed meat. They backed the recommendation to eat less meat both with reference to individual health and long-term population health, including food insecurity and environmental sustainability.
However, industry lobbied members of Congress, who urged the USDA and HHS to reconsider guidance on red meat. Committee members wrote to Congress protesting, for the first time, legislative interference with their scientific process. Senators wrote back telling the Committee not to allow recommendations to be “agenda-driven.” Although, of course, these senators themselves were promoting the interests of their donors by making this recommendation.
When the USDA and HHS finally issued the Guidelines in January 2016, they excluded the Committee’s recommendations (supported by overwhelming evidence in journals like the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and Archives of Internal Medicine) without justification.
They stated that cholesterol was no longer a nutrient of concern, but also contradicted themselves by advising to reduce dietary cholesterol as much as possible. They did not advise cutting back on red meat and processed foods and did not reference sustainability as a concern, despite 97% of public comments supporting its inclusion. Rather, they actively listed red meat and other animal foods as part of a healthful diet.
2. What are the Dietary Guidelines based on?
While the Dietary Guidelines are supposedly based on “on the preponderance of scientific and medical knowledge current at the time of publication” as advised by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, this is not the case. Evidently, the Dietary Guidelines are based on the conflicts of interest among the USDA, Congress and the food lobby.
Overwhelming scientific evidence supports plant-based diets for the prevention and treatment of chronic disease. Says who? Says the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, NutritionFacts.org, the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the British Dietetic Association, the UK’s National Health Service, Australia’s government-funded health service Health Direct, these trailblazing vegan doctors and more.
But the USDA isn’t going to tell the public this because its goal is to sell meat, dairy, and eggs to fund American farmers. For example, the final 2020 guidelines stated that “lower intakes of meats… have often been identified as characteristics of healthy eating patterns.”
They recommended limiting saturated fat to under 10% of calories and sodium to under 2300mg. This requires limiting intakes of red meat, although that they do not say this. The Guidelines clearly state what actual foods to “eat more” of (e.g. vegetables, whole grains). Yet their advice is intentionally murky about what to “eat less” of by referring to individual nutrients (e.g. saturated fat).
The USDA has even attempted to allow the Committee only studies that the USDA had already vetted. Faced with pushback from the media and advocacy groups, the USDA revoked its claim to censor data. Despite this, the 2020 Committee report did not, in the end, reference any outside sources. Clearly, the USDA is not held accountable, as it has been shown to accept or reject recommendations without justification.
Lobbying of the Dietary Guidelines furthers chronic disease and health injustice
The failures of the Dietary Guidelines further health injustice in our society by providing animal-based foods to eighty million people receiving federally-subsidizes food assistance. This disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color, who are the primary recipients of federally subsidized food assistance programs.
These includes programs such as the National School Lunch Program, WIC, programs funded by the Older Americans Act, military meals, and Veterans Affairs health facility meals. As a result, the Dietary Guidelines only further exacerbate the health disparities that originate from systemic oppression.
The Dietary Guidelines shape everything from food policy of federal, state and locate government; food programs in schools and hospitals, and recommendations by doctors and dieticians. They impact what Americans buy and eat everyday. But ultimately, the lobbying of the food industry forms the final dietary guidelines, not science. These disease-promoting animal-based foods that federal programs provide perpetuate the chronic diseases they purport to address.
How can we fix the development of the Dietary Guidelines?
The Guidelines have long been criticized for the conflicts of interest among committee members, lack of transparency and ignoring pleas from the scientific community. Several lawsuits have been brought forth against the USDA and HHS for failing to guard against the “inappropriate influence” of “special interests” and being in violation of the Nutrition Act, yet they have been unsuccessful.
In order to prioritize public health over industry profits, many experts believe that HSS alone should create federal nutrition guidelines. This is because the HSS is not involved in checkoff programs, does not hold conflicts of interest and is lobbied by only two animal food groups.
Additionally, the Dietary Guidelines must be held accountable to the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). This would ensure transparent, evidence-based decision-making; judicial review; time for public comment; and justifications of any deviations of the actual Guidelines from the Committee recommendations.
To make this happen, we either must advocate for amending the Nutrition Act or a lawsuit must overcome the D.C. District Court’s ruling in Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) vs Vilsack. Creating reliable federal nutrition guidance is the first step to other needed reforms, such as making healthful foods more affordable through federal subsidies.
What can the public do to impact how the Dietary Guidelines are developed?
Currently, the development of the 2025-2030 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is in progress. In 2023, the Committee will have meetings open for the public to attend virtually. You can submit public comment throughout the Committee’s deliberative process, from 2023-2025. The USDA Dietary Guidelines website also states that “Opportunities to present oral comments to the Committee will be provided at a future meeting.” You can sign up for email alerts to receive notice of further updates.
We as the public must join advocacy groups in pushing for reformed guidelines that are science-based, not industry-backed. Successfully doing so would be one of the most impactful actions we could take to improve public health, reduce chronic disease and healthcare costs, and promote health equity.
If we don’t, we’re just letting industries that profit from our sickness tell us what to eat.