Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, speaks on sustainable diet and interference of meat and sugar industry in food policy decisions in the US
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) recommendations give distinct importance to an environmentally sustainable diet. How important, in your opinion, is this new addition to the recommendations in context of American dietary habits?
This is the first time a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has recognised the importance of linking agricultural policy to health policy. The evidence reviewed by the committee shows that the diet that best promotes health is also the diet that best protects against climate change. This is a diet based largely on plant foods and includes less meat than Americans usually eat. Agricultural policy should support fruit and vegetable production more than it now does.
The recommendations have constantly stressed on a vegetarian diet, a path away from meats in particular. Is vegetarian diet a way towards a healthier dietary pattern?
The recommendations promote a largely plant-based diet, not exclusively plant-based. Vegetarian diets are demonstrably healthy, especially if they contain some foods of animal origin. From an ecological standpoint, some production of food animals helps to provide fertilizer for food plants.
The new recommendations have created a political stir within the US, with 30 senators writing to the US Department of Health and Human Services and US Department of Agriculture that the DGAC is over-stepping its brief by talking about environment and that lean meats are a scientifically proven part of healthy diet. How frequent are such political interferences in dietary guidelines?
In my book Food Politics, which first came out in 2002 (and is now in a third edition), I reviewed the history of political interference with federal dietary advice. The producers of foods that are targets of “eat less” advice do everything they can to prevent the dietary guidelines from saying so.
How long has the meat industry been lobbying to further their interests? Could you give some instances that put things in a perspective?
The first federal advice to eat less meat in order to reduce saturated fat and cholesterol intake came out in 1977 from a committee of the US Senate. The reaction of the meat industry was ferocious. The meat industry has strongly opposed every suggestion to eat less meat. The most dramatic example occurred in 1991 when the USDA was about to issue its food guide pyramid, which displayed meat toward the narrow top. The meat industry forced the USDA to withdraw the pyramid and spend a million dollars redoing the research. Eventually the USDA released almost the same pyramid but with some changes that appeased the meat industry. Dietary guidelines since then continue to recommend two or three servings a day of two or three ounces of meat.
The DGAC recommendation on reduction in sweetened beverage intake also has been very clear, urging people to have water instead. The US Dietary Guidelines have been talking about reducing sugar consumption in the past too. Is there any pressure or protest from the sugary beverage industry? Could pressure from industry be one of the reasons that America is not able to introduce a soda tax in most of its states, despite repeated recommendations?
Obviously, the soft drink industry does not want its products taxed. It has spent a fortune to defeat soda tax initiatives, particularly in New York and California. Voters in Berkeley, California passed a soda tax by a very wide margin (76 per cent of the vote), largely because of excellent community organising but also because the tax was framed as “Berkeley v Big Soda.” Anything the soda industry did to oppose the tax looked like a “Big Soda” action to voters.
What, according to you, do the current recommendations lack? Also, how much do the dietary guidelines affect diet patterns on the ground in the US?
The last guidelines came out in 2010. The new ones are due by the end of this year. The committee recommendations continue to be a mix of advice about nutrients and food. People eat food, not nutrients. I think the recommendations should focus entirely on food. Many different kinds of foods can be included in diets that promote optimal health. Dietary advice ought to be simple and easy to follow: eat plenty of vegetables, vary food intake, don’t eat too much, and consume junk foods in small amounts. It really isn’t more complicated than that. The problem is that junk foods are heavily advertised and people tend to eat too much of them.
Which countries, according to you, have healthy, environmentally sustainable dietary recommendations that the US could emulate or learn from?
I think all countries struggle with dietary recommendations. At the moment, Brazil sets the standard. Its recommendations focus on foods appropriate to the country’s culture and are very clear about the value of eating foods, not food products.
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