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New US Nutrition Guidelines Break Ground on Sugar; Fail to Mention Meat, Planet

By: Emily Balsamo

    In January 2016 the United States Department of Agriculture in a joint effort with the Department of Health and Human Services updated the new dietary guidelines, revised once every five years. The guidelines are based on the latest nutrition science and serve as the government’s official word on what to eat. This year’s edition included radical changes on recommendations for sugar intake, but did not mention the health or environmental risks of meat consumption, as many nutritionists anticipated they would.

    Key inclusions

    The new guidelines go where no previous guidelines have gone before- to explicitly differentiate between intrinsic and added sugars. The new guidelines recommend that Americans consume no more than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugars. In a 2000 calorie diet, this is equivalent to 12 teaspoons per day, significantly less than the 22 teaspoons per day consumed by the average American.

    This change in the guidelines goes hand in hand with the FDA’s proposition to make marking added sugar obligatory on nutrition labels. The new nutrition labels will include % daily value for added sugar in addition to mass in grams. The FDA states that in the percent daily value would be based on the recommendation that the daily intake of calories from added sugars not exceed 10 percent of total calories, consistent with the new nutrition guidelines. The addition of added sugar to the FDA canon of tracked substances will inform consumers more about the contents of what they’re eating. For example, marking added sugar on a yoghurt nutrition label will inform consumers what sugar is intrinsic to the yoghurt (in the form of lactose) and what is refined sugar added for taste.

    The announcement that the FDA labels will get a makeover in the near future was met with strong reaction from the food industry, with General Mills, Kellogg, and Unilever voicing opposition, and Nestle, Mars, and KIND LLC in support of the changes. General Mills has taken a particularly vocal opposing stance, issuing a report that stated, “We respectfully ask the FDA to pause.” General Mills claims that the new labeling schema will result in misinformation and a decline in consumer understanding, arguing that added sugar is not more harmful than intrinsic sugar and that the new labeling schema would imply otherwise.

    Conspicuous exclusions

    In October 2015, an international panel of food experts and physicians at the World Health Organization announced their conclusion that eating processed red meats such as ham, bacon, and sausages, and highly processed meats such as hot dogs raises the risk of colon cancer. After the announcement, the research unit now classifies processed red meat as “carcinogenic to humans.”

    In their new guidelines, the USDA and HHS did not explicitly advise Americans to reduce consumption of red meat or processed meat, instead simply hinting that “lean meat” is preferable to fatty cuts. The guidelines also mention the benefits of non-meat protein such as seafood and nuts. According to National Public Radio, the USDA committee of nutritionists initially advised including the recommendation to cut back on red meat in the guidelines, but that recommendation was “vigorously challenged” by representatives from the meat industry.

    The issue of sustainability was also excluded from the guidelines, though it should be noted that reducing food waste is the topic of a national joint initiative by the USDA and EPA. In April 2015 a federal advisory committee of nutritionists recommended that guidelines include advice on choosing sustainable food, though the final dietary guidelines did not touch on the issue. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell wrote in a joint blog post that the guidelines are not “the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability,” regarding the omission.

    The issues of sustainable eating and meat consumption go hand in hand. Smith’s front-man Morrissey criticized the menu for the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference, saying that “Serving meat and dairy products at an event to combat climate change is like selling pistols at a gun-control rally.” While the guidelines failed to make explicit recommendations regarding meat consumption and sustainable eating, a de-emphasis on meat is being driven by many prominent voices in the media, from Pope Francis, to the sleeper documentary film hit “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret,” which discusses the immense ecological cost of meat production. While rates of strict vegetarianism have not risen dramatically, Americans are increasingly identifying as “flexitarian,” going meatless more often than not. The flexitarian trend is exemplified by meat analogue producer Morningstar Farm’s ad campaign, “Veg of Allegiance.” The campaign urges consumers not to forego meat entirely, but to pledge to go meatless for a set number of meals per week. The emphasis of the campaign is not in line with the militant vegan calling card, “meat is murder,” but the more moderate sentiment simply that the less meat eaten, the better for the environment.

    Sign of the times

    The new guidelines’ focus on the dangers of added sugar is a sign of the times. In addition to the aforementioned new nutrition labels that the FDA has proposed, distinguishing between added and intrinsic sugars, many state and local governments have proposed adding warning labels to high sugar beverages. The state governments of California and New York as well as the city government of Baltimore have all proposed legislation requiring warning labels on sugary drinks similar to the labels on alcohol and tobacco. California’s legislation proposes adding a warning label to any sweetened nonalcoholic drink with added sweeteners with 75 or more calories per 12 fluid ounces. The state released a mock-up of a label reading:

    STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING:

    Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.

    In New York State, the state assembly is pushing to move a similar bill labeling off-trade sugary drinks. The push comes years after former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg attempted to ban large on-trade sodas. The movement was overturned by a judge in 2013, though State Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz is more optimistic that warning label legislation will pass. “We’re not banning anything, we’re not telling anyone you can’t have cups,” Dinowitz said. “It’s a simple warning.”

    The journal Pediatrics published a study in January 2016 measuring the effects of warning labels on 2,400 parents given the task of choosing a beverage for their child. Parents chose sugary soft drinks that contained warning labels at rates significantly lower than that of the same drinks without labels. Americans have been aware of the detrimental effects of cola for years, and according to Euromonitor syndicated research, in terms of off-trade volume, Cola Carbonates have decreased at a CAGR of 4% for the period of 2010 to 2015 in the United States, with Non-Cola Carbonates showing a slight decline in 2015 over 2014. If labeling legislation takes hold in key markets and Americans take note of the recommendations laid out in the new guidelines, the decline of sugary carbonates will likely become even more precipitous than it has been in recent years in the United States.

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