When it comes to telling us what to eat, the evidence is mounting that the government doesn’t actually have your best interests at heart.
Two members of President Obama’s cabinet, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, recently were called before a congressional committee in Washington to answer questions about a controversial new 571-page report issued by the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC).
In 1990 Congress passed a law mandating that the DGAC, made up of a rotating panel of nutrition and health experts, meet and issue a report on dietary recommendations every five years. The DGAC’s mission, as outlined in a federal government statement, is to use “solid science…. to help people choose an overall healthy diet that works for them.” Its recommendations help form “the basis for federal food and nutrition policy and education initiatives.”
The DGAC’s recommendations are not binding. Instead, they’re used to inform—rather than to set—federal policy. The USDA and HHS have reviewed the report and are expected to release their final dietary guidelines before the end of this year.
The current DGAC report is the most controversial report, by far, in the committee’s history. Just why have the DGAC’s recommendations faced withering scrutiny this time around? Largely, the DGAC has been attacked both for the science it used and for the science it ignored.
Representatives from a variety of food producers, including beverage industry and meat industry groups, for example, blasted the DGAC’s recommendations. The North American Meat Institute called out the report for its recommendations to limit meat consumption, calling the stance “nonsensical” and “flawed.”
The American Beverage Association argued that “the Committee did not consider the body of science” on sugar-sweetened drinks such as soda. The DGAC’s recommendations for establishing healthy food environments includes calls for new taxes on a host of foods the committee labels “unhealthy.” Specifically, the report calls for new taxes on “sugar-sweetened beverages, snack foods and desserts high in calories, added sugars, or sodium, and other less healthy foods[.]”
Recommendations like these, which don’t appear to reflect the DGAC’s mission—how does taxing a candy bar help me to choose an overall healthy diet that works for me?—were, unfortunately, a predictable outcome of this year’s recommendations. When I looked at the transcript of one DGAC hearing in 2014, for example, I found the conversation littered with discussion of new food taxes and regulations. Worse, I noted that the DGAC had considered monitoring the eating habits of overweight Americans by sending them scolding text messages.
At least that awful suggestion didn’t make it into the final report. But what did make it into the report is bad enough.
Journalist Nina Teicholz, author of the award-winning book The Big Fat Surprise, wrote in the British Medical Journal that the DGAC failed to consider “any evidence that contradicts the last 35 years of nutritional advice.” Specifically, Teicholz argues that decades of nutritional recommendations have wrongly demonized fat and that a review of existing research should have pointed the DGAC in a different direction. But it appears the DGAC didn’t take such research seriously.
“What I found was that on many key issues, the DGAC did not use a systematic methodology for reviewing the scientific literature,” Teicholz told me earlier last month.
While Teicholz has criticized the science the DGAC ignored, other criticism of the committee’s work goes to the heart of the science the DGAC actually used. In fact, the most damning criticism so far of the DGAC’s work may be that the data that form the very basis of its recommendations is completely without scientific merit.
University of Alabama-Birmingham researcher Edward Archer’s excellent Mayo Clinic Proceedings article on the DGAC’s reliance on self-reported data punched a gaping hole in the DGAC’s data earlier this year. As Archer told me in June, his research exposes the fact the DGAC is guilty of “presenting anecdotal evidence as science.” Anecdotal evidence is not science.
What’s more, an earlier article by Archer revealed that if the self-reported nutrition data used to form the basis of the DGAC report were correct, then most Americans would be starving or dead. People, Archer told me, “could not survive on the amount of foods and beverages they report.”
So what does this mean about the data that forms the basis of the DGAC report? In short, it’s largely useless. It’s the kind of data that any reasonably good college professor would warn her students not to rely on under any circumstances.
It’s not just me, food-industry groups, Archer and Teicholz who’ve been critical of the DGAC report. Even former DGAC members have criticized the committee’s latest recommendations, saying the current report needlessly “demonizes” a host of foods, including meat, potatoes and sugar.
Show me someone who hasn’t met you but claims to know exactly what you should and shouldn’t be eating—meat or no meat, sugar or no sugar, grain or no grain, potatoes or no potatoes—and I’ll show you a person who’s deluded, a liar or both. Now why would you expect a government—one that doesn’t know you personally, is using flawed and questionable science, and is playing politics with your food—can design a diet that’s right for you?
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Burwell told lawmakers that they’ll ignore some of the DGAC report’s more controversial recommendations. Taxing sugary foods, for example, says Burwell, is “not an issue that we will address.”
That’s a promising sign. If cabinet officials can ignore some of the DGAC’s flawed recommendations, then you certainly should, too.
Baylen J. Linnekin is the executive director of Keep Food Legal Foundation and an adjunct professor at George Mason University Law School, where he teaches Food Law & Policy.