2015 Dietary Guidelines Recommendations: An Exercise in Surrealism

When I read the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) report and sat down at my computer to write this piece, I found myself staring blankly at the screen for an extended period of time not knowing where to start.

After a while the only word that came to mind to describe what I had just read – and the early news stories containing glowing endorsements from food activists – was the word surreal.

Let me start with this paradox.  In your rush to pour through the document, you may have missed the official title of the report, “Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.”  What a joke.

The first word in the title, “scientific,” is rendered entirely moot because this is the least scientific endeavor since the Dietary Guideline for Americans (DGAs) were initiated in 1980.  For the first time, the DGAC didn’t just inform and educate consumers on how to build a healthy diet, it ventured into unabashed lobbying by telling policymakers how they should utilize the levers of public policy to ban, tax and restrict access to certain foods the committee members simply don’t like.

For instance, the DGAC waded headlong into our national food policy discussion with the following:

  • Telling FDA what it should do to with the Nutrition Facts Panel to stigmatize sugar and other food ingredients.

  • A recommendation to tax foods with sodium and sugar to discourage consumption.

  • Recommendations to consumers to forgo meat and replace it with a vegan or vegetarian diet for better health and reduced environmental impact.

  • Telling the government what foods should be banned from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

No one – including the DGAC members – can allege those policy positions are consensus-based, science-based nutrition recommendations. Simply stated, the committee made a conscious decision to turn the DGAs into an advocacy and public relations exercise driven by emotion, assumptions and bias rather than fact.

And what about the recommendation to consume more coffee? Don’t get me wrong, I love coffee, but that recommendation flies squarely in the face of FDA’s repeated concerns that Americans are consuming too much caffeine from beverages and food combined.  They have even threatened to revoke caffeine’s generally recognized as safe status as a food ingredient for some uses they are so worried about it.

So, which federal agency are you supposed to believe?

And keep this in mind.  For decades these same “experts” on the DGAC continued to tell the American people that fat and cholesterol in food was a primary cause of high cholesterol counts in humans. Now, they say that is not true.

Here is the real problem.  The 2015 Dietary Guidelines are many things – fad, politics, emotion, anti-corporate, anti-farmer and many more. But in the end they will do virtually nothing to help consumers build healthy diets and solve obesity because they are fundamentally flawed.

Time and time again we have learned that arbitrary and emotion-based bans, taxes and restrictions won’t prevail in the battle against obesity.

Truth be told, the food industry wishes it could simply ignore the Dietary Guidelines.  In reality, they know they can’t.  Why?  Because even though a fraction of consumers even know they exist, an army of federal government bureaucrats use the DGAs to set federal standards for the billions of dollars the government spends on a host of feeding programs like school lunch, SNAP, WIC and other programs.

In a highly competitive sector where every fraction of a percent of market share is business critical, food companies can’t afford to abandon public sector sales.

So expect the food industry to embark on a coordinated effort to turn back as many of these ridiculous recommendations as they can in the coming months.  They will avail themselves of the public comment period. They will hold direct talks with HHS and USDA. And certainly, they will call on Congress to put an end to this insanity.

They will win some and lose some along the way – but in the end, the damage is already done.

Sean McBride, Founder of DSM Strategic Communications, is former Executive Vice President of Communications & Membership Services at the Grocery Manufacturers Association and former Director of Communications at the American Beverage Association