Current U.S. Dietary Guidelines Don’t Protect Us from Health Risks of Processed Meats, According to New Analysis by Science Group

Guidelines Reflecting Up-to-date Science Could Have Saved as Many as 3,900 Deaths from Colorectal Cancer and Cut Related Medical Costs by $1.5 Billion

Published Jun 6, 2019

WASHINGTON (June 6, 2019)—The U.S. government's dietary guidelines—now under review—have put thousands of lives at risk when it comes to processed meats, according to a new analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “Delivering on the Dietary Guidelines: How Stronger Nutrition Policy Can Cut Costs and Save Lives” found that if the current guidelines reflected the most up-to-date science on processed meats, and Americans were able to follow them, there could have been 3,900 fewer deaths from colorectal cancer and medical costs could have been reduced by $1.5 billion in 2018. Chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other diet-related illnesses, are the leading causes of death and disability and the leading driver of the nation’s $3.5 trillion in annual health care expenditures.

“Processed meats are a major fault line in an otherwise strong set of dietary recommendations,” said Sarah Reinhardt, report author and lead health and food systems analyst at UCS. “Our federal agencies need to let Americans know what the science says and, more importantly, how to put it to use. Even the strongest guidelines won’t make a dent in our chronic disease crisis if the government doesn’t invest time and resources into implementing them.”

Every five years, a federal science advisory committee comes together to re-examine the next set of the Dietary Guidelines of Americans, previous iterations of which produced MyPlate and the Food Pyramid. Two federal agencies then review the draft guidelines and make the final recommendations, which inform healthy eating decisions for consumers and, most significantly, guide federal nutrition programs that serve millions of school children, as well as low-income mothers and families.

Mounting evidence shows that cutting back on processed meat can drastically cut our risk for colorectal cancer. Children and adults across the U.S. currently consume an average of nearly one ounce of processed meat—which amounts to one to two slices of deli meat or bacon, or half of a hot dog—every day. However, ample evidence shows that people should eat much less processed meat to minimize their risk for colorectal cancer—for example, one hot dog every two weeks. Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S. and among the cancers most strongly linked to diet.   

The independent science committee that reviewed the scientific evidence for the 2015-2020 guidelines concluded that a healthy diet generally means less red and processed meat. However, the federal agencies that have the final say on the guidelines, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), chose not to recommend eating less of either.

“Science and policy should match up, but in the case of dietary recommendations on processed meat, they don’t,” said Ricardo Salvador, senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at UCS. “The development of the U.S. dietary guidelines is a scientifically rigorous process, but in rare cases it can be undermined by industry influence. We know the Trump administration has a record of rewarding big agribusiness industries—from pesticide-maker DowDuPont to the National Chicken Council, which represents giant poultry companies—at the expense of public health and safety. Public comments and congressional oversight can ensure the administration adheres to nutrition science and provides Americans with the best possible information and resources to manage their health.”

The UCS analysis recommends that the USDA and HHS secretaries resist industry lobbying and approve guidelines that follow current scientific recommendations on processed meat. Additionally, the report calls for the agencies to further lower added-sugar limits, which could help reduce type 2 diabetes; to develop age-appropriate recommendations for all Americans, including pregnant women, infants, and toddlers; and to adequately fund the implementation of the dietary guidelines, including investing more in programs that help people meet fruit and vegetable recommendations and improve healthy food access in communities that need it most.

For more information about how helping Americans meet science-based dietary guidelines on processed meat, added sugar, and fruits and vegetables could save thousands of lives and billions in medical costs, see this blog by Sarah Reinhardt.

For more information about food industry lobbying around nutrition issues, see this blog by Karen Perry Stillerman, senior analyst in the Food and Environment Program at UCS.