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The top federal health and agriculture officials defended the government’s dietary guidelines against an assault by a powerful Congressional committee Wednesday, saying they are based on the most solid science but were never meant to be the last word on nutrition.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Health and Human Services Department are due to release the 2015 guidelines by the end of the year.
The aim is to help Americans eat the healthiest foods. The need becomes more dire with every year -- two-thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese, they eat far too few of the foods they should, such as fruits and vegetables, and eat way too much fat, sugar and salt.
The guidelines are updated every five years and form the basis of regulations governing food stamps, school lunches and other programs.
They’re always subject to heavy lobbying from the food industry and other interests. Republicans in Congress have weighed in even more heavily this time, saying the Obama administration is going too far in not only telling people what to eat, but in trying to regulate food.
Members also expressed frustration about what seems to be flip-flopping science – most recently, changes in what’s known about cholesterol and high-fat food.
They laid on the pressure Wednesday in a hearing of the full House Agriculture Committee.
“Some of the biggest critics of these guidelines are from the industries that produce the least healthy foods."
The two agencies say they won’t change much from previous years. “Fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains and lean meats and other proteins, and limited amounts of saturated fats, added sugars and sodium remain the building blocks of a healthy lifestyle,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS secretary Sylvia Burwell said in a joint statement.
But even before the hearing, HHS and USDA backed away from one controversial proposal that would have addressed sustainability – the question of whether foods can be produced at current levels and whether it’s good for the environment.
“The final 2015 Guidelines are still being drafted, but because this is a matter of scope, we do not believe that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability,” they wrote.
That decision went against public opinion, Burwell noted. “There 19,000 comments on sustainability … 97 percent of those comments…were positive, that they wanted us to include sustainability,” she told the hearing.
It was a victory for the meat industry, which is sensitive to research that shows raising animals for meat uses far more water than raising the equivalent plant food and that meat production pollutes waterways with manure waste and releases climate-changing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
“Moving forward, we hope the agencies will continue to focus on the clear science highlighting the wide variety of nutrition benefits of all meat and poultry products to develop a Dietary Guidelines for Americans best suited to achieve healthy outcomes for all Americans,” said North American Meat Institute president Barry Carpenter.
HHS and USDA also abandoned any discussion of taxing sugary foods.
But members of the Agriculture Committee were happy to grill Burwell and Vilsack about other topics, from guidelines on sodium and full-fat milk (the advice is to cut back on both) to whether people should eat meat (the current guidelines say lean meat is okay but not too much).
"People may be losing confidence in the guidelines," said Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the senior Democrat on the committee. "Given the public's skepticism we should maybe reconsider why we are doing this."
Not every member of the panel agreed.
“Some of the biggest critics of these guidelines are from the industries that produce the least healthy foods,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Top doctors also complained.
“The process by which the federal government provides the best available dietary advice to millions of Americans is under attack on Capitol Hill. As physicians and leaders of professional medical organizations, we are compelled to speak out,” Dr. Sandra Hassink, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and Dr. Steven Stack, president of the American Medical Association, said in a joint editorial in The Hill newspaper Wednesday.
“The process by which the federal government provides the best available dietary advice to millions of Americans is under attack on Capitol Hill."
“This process takes years, and is intentionally removed from the political process. And yet, it is currently under threat on Capitol Hill: Language pending in multiple spending bills would hinder the federal government’s ability to provide the best available advice to millions of children and adults on healthy diets and lifestyles,” they added.
“If enacted, efforts to reduce consumption of added sugars in order to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and dental caries would be stymied. Interventions to reduce screen time and increase physical activity in children and adults would be disrupted.”
Several members of the committee asked whether Americans can trust the guidelines, given that they often change.
It’s because science evolves, and so does understanding of what’s good for you, Burwell answered.
“In some cases, science does change. And in the case of our understanding of blood cholesterol versus dietary cholesterol, there has been an evolution in understanding of the difference of those and what they cause,” she said.
Burwell and Vilsack also pointed out that an expert report issued in February to advise HHS and USDA on the guidelines is just that -- advice. That report noted that pure dietary cholesterol from foods such as eggs doesn’t appear to raise people’s blood cholesterol. It’s confusing because saturated fat does raise cholesterol levels, but it’s difficult for non-experts to tell the difference.
One result has been headlines saying whole milk and butter are okay – headlines that have prompted frustrated nutrition experts to fight back with reports carrying saying straight up that “Butter is not back.”