Does the Food Industry Influence the Development of the Dietary Guidelines?

Ask a Scientist - June 2019

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the nation’s leading set of science-based nutrition recommendations, is revised every five years to reflect the best available science. Implemented through federal programs that serve millions of children, parents, seniors, and veterans every day, the Dietary Guidelines provides key recommendations to reduce chronic disease by helping people eat healthier diets. Because the process to develop the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines is now underway, we asked Sarah Reinhardt, lead analyst of food systems and health in our Food and Environment program, to fill us in on how food companies play a role in this crucial process.

Does the food industry influence the development of the Dietary Guidelines? And, given the current administration’s tendency to sideline scientific advice, could the food industry pose a greater threat to science-based recommendations this time around?

It is certainly true that the food industry hopes to influence how the Dietary Guidelines are developed. As we reported in our new UCS analysis, “Delivering on the Dietary Guidelines,” many food industry sectors lobby Congress for more favorable recommendations of their products. In the two years preceding the development of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, food and beverage companies and trade associations did so aggressively. Reporting forms filed by these groups during that two-year period show they spent more than $77 million to lobby Congress on a range of issues, including the Dietary Guidelines. Soft drink makers Coca-Cola and PepsiCo and their industry lobby group, the American Beverage Association, spent a combined $23.8 million; the dairy industry, represented by the International Dairy Foods Association and Land O’Lakes, spent more than $21 million; and the meat industry, including a number of marketing associations and councils, collectively spent $4.5 million.

For the newest edition of the Dietary Guidelines—which will include, for the first time, recommendations for infant nutrition—the formula industry has joined the usual suspects. Nestlé, a global purveyor of infant formula with a troubled history, spent $1.3 million lobbying Congress on a number of issues, including the Dietary Guidelines, in 2018.

In some cases, the food industry succeeds in wielding influence. The most notable example is the meat industry’s success in suppressing dietary recommendations that might threaten its sales. Despite an abundance of evidence linking processed meat and red meat to adverse health effects, including such deadly chronic diseases as colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease, the Dietary Guidelines have not explicitly recommended that Americans limit their consumption of either type of meat.

In the final stages of publishing the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, the meat issue took center stage in what became a very public showdown over environmental sustainability. The 2015 science advisory committee had incorporated findings in its report that concluded that diets featuring more plant-based foods are healthier and less damaging to the environment than the typical US diet. That conclusion has since been validated by further research, including the recent EAT Lancet Commission reports. But the committee’s consideration of plant-based diets and environmental sustainability triggered vigorous opposition, prompting Congress to pass legislative language limiting the scope of the Dietary Guidelines strictly to diet. Ultimately, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services secretaries omitted these recommendations from the final guidelines, claiming the issue was outside of its scope. Many experts saw this decision as an overt override of scientific evidence by meat industry groups that opposed the recommendations.

Fortunately, the cases where the food industry manages to impose its will are exceptions, not the rule. By and large, these examples are unrepresentative of the high quality of scientific evidence and expertise that undergirds most of the dietary recommendations. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines’ advice has changed little over the last 35 years. Recommendations typically call on Americans to consume more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains; limit foods that contain high amounts of sugar or sodium; and develop healthy eating habits based on moderation and variety. Despite what the diet-du-jour might have us believe, the Dietary Guidelines process has applied rigorous science to produce relatively consistent dietary recommendations since its first edition in 1980, despite the ever-present, persistent, and powerful voice of the food industry.

As for the Trump administration, it is without a doubt a difficult time to uphold scientific principles in federal policymaking. From its ill-conceived proposal to relocate two leading USDA research agencies to its gross neglect of dozens of federal scientific advisory committees, the Trump administration has dismissed scientists and scientific evidence with an alarming consistency. A UCS analysis of 73 science advisory committees during the first year of the administration found that these committees met less often than in any year since the federal government began tracking meetings in 1997; nearly two-thirds of the committees are meeting less than their charters require; and advisory committee membership has decreased 14 percent since 2016.

The Trump administration’s intentional evisceration of advisory committees doesn’t bode well for the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines, which will draw its recommendations from a science advisory committee report. To make matters worse, the final guidelines will be reviewed and issued by USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, who has a long, well-documented history of favoring industry interests and undermining public health and safety protections. Add to this the blatant disregard President Trump has shown for human health and well-being, notably the United States’ stunning and nearly singular opposition to a breastfeeding resolution at the UN World Health Assembly last summer, and one might suspect a recipe for disaster.

But I’m not there yet. There is some strong expertise on the Dietary Guidelines for America science advisory committee, whose industry connections (though unfortunate) are about on par with previous committees, and it is guided by a process that has typically resulted in well-substantiated dietary recommendations. Members of the public have a year to leave comments and monitor this process while that committee deliberates. If UCS members are interested in commenting, and we urge you to do so, check out our comment guide (pdf).

Sarah Reinhardt is the lead food systems and health analyst for the Food & Environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she applies nutrition science and public health research methods to develop policy positions in support of a more healthful, sustainable, and equitable food system. Ms. Reinhardt is a registered dietitian with a master’s in public health from the University of Michigan, where she also earned a B.A. in women’s studies.