In recent years, public health advocates have gained far too much clout in developing dietary guidelines for healthy eating.

by Joanne Slavin and Mark Engstrom
Slavin is a professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota. She grew up on a dairy farm in Walworth, Wis., that she still owns with her sisters. Engstrom is a dairy nutritionist with DSM Nutritional Products, Inc. They both thank the University of Wisconsin-Madison for sound training in nutritional sciences.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) has completed its deliberations. The most heavily covered issue in the media seems to be the committee's recommendation to consume a more sustainable diet, which generally translates into a vegetarian diet.

Why should dairy producers care about the dietary guidelines? After all, no one truly follows dietary advice, and dairy seems to come off okay. But consider the implications of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and what role you could have in demanding that the guidelines, developed with significant taxpayer expense, get back to the original idea that they offer science-based advice on diets that promote health and are not politically motivated.

As for some specifics, here are a few 2015 DGAC themes:

1. The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, is healthier and lower in calories than animal-based foods. Additionally, this concept is being promoted as having less environmental impact than current U.S. dietary recommendations.

2. The DGAC encourages the consumption of foods that are low in saturated fat, added sugars and sodium. The goals for the general population on a daily basis are: less than 2,300 mg of dietary sodium; less than 10 percent total calories from saturated fat; and a maximum of 10 percent of total calories from added sugars. Despite the continued emphasis on saturated fat, the document states there is no need to limit dietary cholesterol.

3. A healthy diet is touted as higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or nonfat dairy, seafood, legumes and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults), lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.

The potential impacts

As dairy producers, you may not know how much the recommendations on sugar and sodium will hurt you. Bans on chocolate milk in schools are based on high amounts of added sugar, not any nutritional deficiencies in chocolate milk. These added sugar limits would make ice cream, yogurt, and other healthy dairy products off limits for government programs such as school lunch and WIC (Women, Infants and Children). Continuing the strict sodium limits also makes it difficult to include most dairy foods, especially cheese, in dietary recommendations. Keeping tight limits on saturated fats but not dietary cholesterol is also confusing. This gives eggs a pass, but tight controls on saturated fats will not allow full-fat milk, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products to be on a recommended list.

The Dietary Guidelines are charged with offering nutrition advice for Americans ages 2 and above. The science base developed by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee serves as the foundation for the development of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). The lead agency for the DGA alternates between USDA and HHS (Health and Human Services), with the 2010 DGA being led by USDA. As a point of information, co-author Joanne Slavin served on the 2010 DGAC. That committee included expertise in food science and agriculture and conducted evidence-based reviews to help answer nutrition questions.

The upcoming 2020 dietary guidelines will also include the age group birth to 24 months, which is a frightening proposition. The DGAC has been filled with public health advocates, not experts on infant and children nutrition, physicians or other health professionals who see patients, or nutrition education experts from land grant, agricultural institutions.

The long-standing foundation

Nutrition guidance should first do no harm, essentially making sure that nutrients get delivered in our diet. Protein is considered the most important of the macronutrients and is particularly crucial during growth and development.

Dietary guidance through the years has recommended a range of protein sources to accommodate cultural and religious considerations. While most nutritionists know about sources of protein, some consumers do not. Animal products provide the highest amounts and quality of protein. A diet devoid of animal products - a vegan diet - can provide very little protein or the wrong combinations of protein if consumers don't understand that certain foods - fruits, vegetables - are particularly low in protein and that the protein in plant-based foods, including grains and legumes, should be combined to provide complete protein.

A new attack on fat

Since 1977, the Dietary Goals for Americans have advocated for a diet lower in fat and higher in carbohydrates. These recommendations have been translated into the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and suggest that we consume less fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Such recommendations require low consumption of animal products, including red meats, eggs and dairy products. Consumers may ignore these policies, but they impact all government programs. School lunch and other government support programs allow only low-fat dairy products and limit consumption of animal products; all contain high-quality protein.

Do we have good data that low-fat diets improve health?

Actually, no.

Popular consumer books have pointed out this discrepancy, but government expert panels appear to be stuck in the low-saturated-fat world. But if nutrition science does not support the belief that saturated fat is the villain in our consumption of animal products, shifting the blame to sustainability is a dangerous new mantra.

Who are the experts on sustainability? Sustainability 101 suggests that there are three pillars to sustainability: economic, environmental and social. So each food stream - meat, fish, grains, dairy, eggs, fruit, vegetables, coffee, cocoa, bananas and so forth - needs to have its supply chain evaluated on all three pillars.

Sustainability is an important topic as the world's population grows and there is greater pressure to provide high-quality protein and safe water. From our experience, we would suggest that the 2020 DGAC include folks with strong training in agriculture, applied economics, food supply chain, food security, food safety, and food production. Without these expertises at the table, dietary guidelines become politicized and recommendations could be made that are not supported by science.

This article appears on page 283 of the April 25, 2015 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.

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