The New Dietary Guidelines, Fats, Salt, Sugar, Edible GMOs cover

The New Dietary Guidelines, Fats, Salt, Sugar, Edible GMOs


If you read anything at all about the US Department of Agriculture’s 2015 dietary guidelines, which have finally been issued now that it is 2016, it was probably a diatribe arguing that the government was giving bad advice about what to eat.

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The New Dietary Guidelines, Fats, Salt, Sugar, Edible GMOs

The Wrong Diet

If you read anything at all about the US Department of Agriculture’s 2015 dietary guidelines, which have finally been issued now that it is 2016, it was probably a diatribe arguing that the government was giving bad advice about what to eat.

Almost lost in the disputes, which focused largely on recommendations against saturated fat and salt, was the fact that that the guidelines urged drastic reductions in sugar intake, including soda.

Italian Pyramid

In Italy, the dietary food groups include biscotti and cured meats like salami.

Italian Pyramid

At Food Politics, Marion Nestle pointed out that the advice about soda–apparently the source of nearly half of added dietary sugar–is really hard to find in the guideline document. She also says the language about sugar is “waffling.” “This cannot be an accident. It must be deliberate. And it can have only one explanation: politics.

Food Fights Begin

They have been in the pipeline for so long that plenty of the critiques about the 2015 guidelines appeared last year even though the guidelines didn’t.

In March, environmentalists were mourning the news that the upcoming guidelines would not take into consideration sustainability of food production. This, Maddie Oatman said at Grist, would be a victory for the meat industry.

However, environmental impacts as a criterion for food recommendations had been endorsed by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC.)

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee

DGAC produced a long report that was supposed to form the basis of the new guidelines.

The eventual reality turned out to be a bit mixed. The guidelines did recommend that teenage boys and young men eat less protein, although environmental issues resulting from livestock production were not mentioned. According to O’Connor, eliminating mention of environmental sustainability was partly the result of Congressional action.

Food and Sustainability

Food and Sustainability


Saturated Fat

The noisiest dispute resulted from journalist Nina Teicholz’s takedown of the DGAC report, which argued chiefly that the report was completely wrong in its opposition to saturated fats.

The piece appeared in the British Medical Journal last September.

Larry Husten summarized the BMJ article, and comments about it pro and con, at CardioBrief. [Update 1-23-16: Teicholz responds to criticisms of her BMJ article in the Comments, below.] He noted that Teicholz is the author of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, which argues that the low-fat diet became the standard recommendation due to politics and shoddy science. The result, critics claim, is that people replaced fats with sugar and other carbs, leading to diabetes and widespread obesity.

Describing The Complaints

Some of the complaints were not so chivalrous, charging that Teicholz was simply wrong about some of her claims and ignored relevant papers.

At Retraction Watch, Shannon Palus described some of these, including The Verge’s series of objections about the Teicholz piece and the BMJ’s responses and correction. [Update 1-23-16: The BMJ issued only one formal correction. Palus points out that the journal also issued a clarification.]

Incidental Economist Aaron Carroll was somewhat more sympathetic to Teicholz, although he regards the evidence about saturated fat as more ambiguous. He agreed, however, that the committee’s advice to reduce salt intake is wrong, arguing that “a growing body of evidence should give people pause before they continue to argue that everyone needs to consume less sodium.”

“The Science Of Nutrition Is A Disaster”

When the guidelines finally appeared a few weeks ago, Husten threw up his hands, writing “The science of nutrition is a disaster.”

Because it’s not possible to perform long-term randomized controlled trials, there are no reliable answers to pressing dietary questions, he said. But that doesn’t keep nutrition researchers from having opinions about the answers–opinions that conflict with each other.

Note, however, that in a guest post at HealthNewsReview, Finnish dietitian Reijo Laatikainen argued that randomized clinical trials are not necessarily the solution for dietary confusion. For one thing, it’s enormously difficult to keep researchers and participants blinded about which experimental group a particular subject has been assigned to.

Food Manufacturing

Food Manufacturing


Bad Guidelines

The dietary guidelines also prompted Husten’s recent post decrying guidelines of all sorts, calling them bad for science.

Guidelines should never be issued unless “there is overwhelming evidence and near universal consensus.” That’s because guidelines can lead to unintended consequences, like the example of low-fat diets leading to fat people. He is also concerned that guidelines lead to the illusion of successful science, the deceptive appearance of clarity and understanding.

A consistent complaint about nutrition science is that one of its most important research tools, what people tell investigators about what they eat, is inherently untrustworthy. That’s because self-reports of any kind are inherently untrustworthy. People forget. And people lie.

Issues With Data Manipulation

Christie Aschwanden’s long post at FiveThirtyEight quoted researchers about data (un)reliability in nutrition research and also described research on staffers and readers.

This provided amusing opportunities for data manipulation, showing that eggroll consumption was linked to dog ownership and table salt to a positive relationship with an Internet service provider.

Two of the illustrations in this post are taken from Julia Belluz’s Vox post about dietary guidelines from around the world. For which my thanks.

The GMO Food Fights

In other food news, Campbell Soup has, in Steven Novella’s words at Neurologica, switched sides in the debate about whether to label foods that contain genetically modified ingredients.

Really switched sides. Campbell is not just agreeing to use such labels, it is endorsing the whole idea of federal legislation requiring such labels. Is this the beginning of the end of the nutsy dispute over GMO labeling?

Like Novella, I don’t favor mandatory labeling.

Using Labels

Using Labels

But voluntary labeling makes perfect business sense, as I argued in a Scientific American piece a couple years ago. Labeling will force the anti-GMO folks to shut up about it and could even result in praise that will be a help to marketing efforts.

Campbell is suggesting that its labels will be tiny, which I suppose is one way to go. But if food producers follow my advice and slap big fat declamatory labels on their GM foods, they could hasten the day when there’s nothing at all noteworthy about GM ingredients in a food. Time to stop being wusses.


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