Dietary Guidelines Committee Proposes That Americans Choose Foods Based on Sustainability

MyPlateBy Leanna M Sweha

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee – experts in nutrition and public health – recently released its Scientific Report for the 2015 update to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Report has sparked controversy because, for the first time, the sustainability of foods has been identified as a basis for national dietary recommendations.

The Guidelines contain nutritional and dietary information and recommendations for the general public ages 2 years and older. The ‘My Plate’ graphic, and its prior incarnations – ‘My Pyramid’ and the ‘Food Pyramid’ – are the most recognizable images based on the Guidelines.

Nutrition and public health professionals, policy makers and educators all rely on the Guidelines. Moreover, federal agencies that run food, nutrition, and health programs are required to promote the Guidelines. For example, the Guidelines translate into approved menus for school-based food programs and military food programs.

The 2015 Report is similar to previous reports in many respects. It recommends higher consumption of vegetables and fruit and lower consumption of sugar, refined grains, red and processed meat. Other suggestions similar to past reports include reducing screen time, eating less often at fast food restaurants, increasing family shared meals, effective food labeling, and regular physical activity.

Chapter 5 is where we see a significant departure from past reports. It highlights the link between food security and environmental health and promotes the concept of a ‘sustainable diet,’ defined as one which not only promotes health and well-being, but also sustains human and natural resources for future generations.

The chapter cites moderate to strong evidence that the current average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact – more greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use – than diets like the Healthy Vegetarian and Healthy Mediterranean diet patterns. This is because the average US diet is higher in animal-based foods and lower in plant-based foods, and because animal agriculture is generally more resource intensive.

Life cycle assessment studies and land-use studies formed the primary evidence for this finding. A life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a “standardized methodological framework for assessing the environmental impact attributable to the life cycle of a food product. The life cycle for a food typically includes agricultural production, processing and packaging, transportation, retail, use, and waste disposal.”

The evidence supported the conclusion that “a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.”

The Report did note that no food group must be eliminated completely to improve sustainability, and it emphasized that a sustainable diet also must be affordable.

The North American Meat Institute (NAMI), a trade association that represents meat processing companies and their suppliers, issued a press release highly critical of the Report.

NAMI President and CEO Barry Carpenter said, “The Dietary Guidelines Committee’s charter tasked them with reviewing nutrition science, which is the field from which Committee members were selected. The Committee’s foray into the murky waters of sustainability is well beyond its scope and expertise.”

NAMI pointed to a recent LCA study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that calculated greenhouse gas emissions of various foods based on unit of mass as well as unit of calories. It found that more nutrient-dense animal products, like meat and dairy, had higher emissions when measured per 100 grams of product but much lower values when measured per 100 calories of product.

Mr. Carpenter noted that “total sustainability analyses were not considered by the Advisory Committee, whose recommendations appear to be based on personal opinions or social agendas.”

Sonja Brodt, Ph.D., Academic Coordinator at the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis, is an expert in LCAs of crop production systems and food products. She said that, in the past, LCAs looked mostly at impacts per unit of mass of food product, but that now the trend is to use different units to get a better perspective of how various food products are actually used by consumers and the types of benefits consumers derive from them.

Brodt and Alissa Kendall, Ph.D. , Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Davis, recently presented a paper at the 9th International Conference on Life Cycle Assessment. Their study used different functional units – mass, serving size, energy content, protein content and a composite nutrient score – to measure global warming emissions for almonds, processed tomatoes (diced and paste), and rice. They found that greenhouse gas emissions varied widely between and within the four different foods, depending on which functional unit was used.

[edit: paper here, copy and paste this URL: http://lcafood2014.org/papers/251.pdf”]

The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture will consider the Report and jointly issue the final Guidelines later this year. The public comment period for the Report ends April 8. NAMI has asked for an extension to review studies cited in the Report.

Leanna M Sweha, JD, has been a resident of Davis for 20 years.  As a young molecular biologist in a USDA lab working to engineer Roundup-resistant corn, she grew interested in sustainable agriculture.  Fascinated with the legal and policy issues of agricultural genetics, she became an attorney specializing in agricultural and natural resources law.  She has worked for the California Resources Agency and the UC Davis Office of Research.

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42 Comments

  1. Barack Palin

     Their study used different functional units – mass, serving size, energy content, protein content and a composite nutrient score – to measure global warming emissions for almonds, processed tomatoes (diced and paste), and rice. They found that greenhouse gas emissions varied widely between and within the four different foods, depending on which functional unit was used.

    You know where this is headed, a carbon tax on the different foods you eat.

    1. David Greenwald

      If the government doesn’t, the market likely will. I don’t know if this gets us way off track, but the problem right now is that there are huge costs that are not being factored in the cost of production and that is the cost to the environment and the mitigation to environment impacts that are treated as externalities are in fact actual costs that we’re going to have to pay for. Fine, you don’t pay a direct tax, but at some point whether it’s a tax or a price increase, it’s coming out of your pocket.

      1. Barack Palin

        Awwww, so this is what food justice is.  Someday when I’m chewing on an almond I’ll feel better about myself because I paid more for that evil greenhouse gas emitting nut.

        1. David Greenwald

          I don’t think that’s an accurate characterization. I do think the question of sustainability has to enter into the picture however. For me, I don’t care how you feel about yourself, the bigger problem is the global environmental picture and ability to continue to feed the world and survive climate change.

  2. Barack Palin

    The process leading to today’s report was heavily influenced by activists’ plans to change the nation’s dietary guidelines to promote foods that they believe have “a smaller carbon footprint.”
    In the past, as required by Congress, the federal government’s dietary guidelines were intended exclusively to ‘promote health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases.’
    This is no longer the case. For the first time in the history of the guidelines, ‘sustainability’ has been a prominent part of the agenda. Actual items on their Dietary Guidelines working group agenda included ‘immigration,’ ‘global climate change’ and ‘agriculture/aquaculture sustainability.’
    What’s more, if the Obama administration allows this theme to become part of the new dietary guidelines to be released later this year, it will cost the public money and not make us any healthier.
    By favoring foods which activists think have a smaller carbon footprint, the new guidelines will increase the prices you pay for your food. It will also increase the cost to all taxpayers, since the Dietary Guidelines are used to set policy for food stamps (SNAP) and military diets.

    http://www.jeffstier.org/16105/federal-government-dietary-guidelines-should-not

  3. Tia Will

    I am at a complete loss as to why anyone would oppose recommendations that from a medical perspective are clearly healthier. Emphasizing a more plant based diet with fewer meat products, fewer processed foods, fewer fast foods ( closer to a Mediterranean style diet) has been demonstrated to be a healthier choice many times. The desire to politicize the recommendation by emphasizing one rationale over others by either side is clearly counter productive. This is primary prevention at its finest and should not be turned into a political football in my opinion.

      1. Tia Will

        BP

        Not unless others choose to make them so. Who do you know that seriously argues that having “a larger carbon footprint” is a desirable goal ? Unless you are arguing this, favoring a smaller one is a benign comment pulled out of context in order to make an argument of an otherwise medically accepted set of recommendations. To me this would be like arguing that we should have rejected the governments educational program against smoking if anyone had also said “and it will have the additional benefit of less smoke in the air”.

  4. Don Shor

    to measure global warming emissions for almonds, processed tomatoes (diced and paste), and rice. They found that greenhouse gas emissions varied widely between and within the four different foods, depending on which functional unit was used.”

    Well, don’t leave us hanging…especially since the link you provided gives a “File Not Found.”

    1. David Greenwald

      I suppose we should ignore the 800 pound gorilla in the room for fear of politicizing the issue? Or as Don points out, people can simply ignore that chapter, but I suppose we cannot expect that level of maturity when it comes to hot-buttoned issues.

      1. Barack Palin

        David states:

        I suppose we should ignore the 800 pound gorilla in the room for fear of politicizing the issue? Or as Don points out, people can simply ignore that chapter, but I suppose we cannot expect that level of maturity when it comes to hot-buttoned issues.

        But David writes:

        the bigger problem is the global environmental picture and ability to continue to feed the world and survive climate change.

        and…

        there are huge costs that are not being factored in the cost of production and that is the cost to the environment and the mitigation to environment impacts that are treated as externalities are in fact actual costs that we’re going to have to pay for.

        You are right!

         

         

        1. David Greenwald

          Think of it this way, let’s say you have a production plant that supplies a product. For years they sell that product based on their costs of supplying the product and the demand. However, we find out 20 years later, they have been leaking into the groundwater supply. They leave the site and the EPA gets called in to deal with groundwater contamination. That costs money to clean up. It should have been factored into the cost of production, but it wasn’t. That’s in effect what is happening with GHG emissions. We are getting charged for the production costs of food but not the externalities.

  5. Robb Davis

    Anon: “Oh brother, the subject of good nutrition has now become a political football.”

    No, those of us who used and tried to apply the ubiquitous “food pyramid” of nutritional guidelines know that such guidelines have always been political.

    This is nothing new.  As noted in the above link in a quote from NYU nutritionist Marion Nestle:

    The pyramid was meant to be released in 1991. At that point, the meat industry and the dairy industry got wind of it, didn’t like where their products appeared, sort of towards the top of the pyramid, and complained so bitterly to the Department of Agriculture that the Department of Agriculture withdrew it, and redid the research and went through a year-long lobbying process that resulted in the 1992 release of the pyramid. It was already incredibly political, right from the outset.

    And Dan Glickman, formerly head of the USDA noted concerning the evolution of nutritional guidelines:

    Part of that was the multiplicity of missions in the Department of Agriculture, because politically, the heart of the Department of Agriculture was food producers, was making sure that there were enough farmers alive and they could continue to produce food. So farmers produce all sorts of things, from fats to carbohydrates to proteins and everything in between. USDA has always had this little bit of conflicting mission between the producers of food and the consumers of food, and how to bridge that gap between the two of them hasn’t been all that easy.

    Alternate formulations of the pyramid to account for “non-food” issues such as exercise, have been produced over time.  The idea of trying to also add in the environmental impact of the food industry is not unreasonable if people are to be informed consumers (we all want that, right?).  However, I am glad to hear that researchers are exploring the best ways to assess that impact.  I look forward to more analysis of the methods and approaches used.

    Thanks for the article Leanna.

  6. hpierce

    Methinks this is like investing.  In this case, balancing your likes, what you need to be ‘healthy’, and what you are willing to ‘pay’, be it health or monetary terms.  There is no one, right, answer.

    One can invest in a “social conscience” fund, a “natural resources fund”, various fund “blends”.  Just like investing, more information is good, for those who want to make informed choices.  Despite the possible recommendations of the report, I’ll occasionally want a tender steak, some lobster, a salad made from Romaine hearts, potatoes, and wash it down with a nice glass of red wine.  My choice.  But then again, I am slim, low end of the chlorestorol (sp) band and have no ambitions to be the oldest person in the world.

    If the government says I have to follow this diet (which they can’t), I’d have a serious problem with that.  If as one has opined, the carbon tax is used to force me to these choices, that attempt will fail, as this is a world economy and I see no way in hell that the world will adopt the worst case economic sanctions.

    To me, this is interesting info, but probably not affect my life by one scintilla.

     

     

  7. Frankly

    So you wake up one day realizing you have been born with both a bossy gene and a risk aversion gene.  Natural human tribalism causes you to associate with people like yourself.  And together you form the tribe of liberals (progressives?).  Your tribe gains political power and you and others in your tribe exploit that power in pursuit of your insatiable need to tell other people how to live their lives.  But it isn’t enough.  It is never enough.  So you think hard.  You are good at that because you received a good education spending more time at school because your risk aversion prevented you from launching into a life of risk-taking enterprise. And now you have come up with a brilliant idea.  If you can cooped science and the theories of science to back your bossy pursuits… you then could do so much more.

    And then you happen on the theory of man-made global warming.  It is like a gift from heaven.

    You can use this scientific theory on almost everything.  You can seek retribution for all those less educated classmates of yours that were born with enterprising risk-taking genes and had the audacity to become more successful than you.   You can push your softer, less competitive, more risk-averse-friendly, lifestyle on everyone else.  It will make you feel better.  More equal.  More the same.  More accepted.

    Meanwhile the economy continues to stagnate… and eventually it crashes.  Because the truth is that those risk-taking enterprising people were the ones that had been keeping it up.  They were the ones that really provided the standards of living that provided all the free time for you to become highly educated and use that education in your bossy pursuits.

    Nutrition is science.  But it also predates science and is a big part of people’s culture.  Government should provide services to keep our food safe as possible.   Government should support science.  But government should never go so far as to influence and dictate what people eat through policy.   For one, this would be cultural bias.  For two, government in that role is highly exploitative and subject to graft and corruption.

    Bossy people need to spend more time minding their own business.

    1. Barack Palin

      Well said Frankly, but sorry to say that you now owe a tax for the harm you did to the environment for breathing out CO2 while you typed this.

    2. hpierce

      You made a logical “leap”. Frankly, it is a report, and guidelines, not a national policy.  Of course, you might differ, and espouse a national policy that everyone adopt your world view because you might feel THAT is the best way to “be”.  In both cases, I’ll make my own judgments.  And not rant about how those who either like the dietary guidelines, or not, or call them names like “naive”, or any other labels.  But insist that I follow the dietary guidelines, or your political/economic ones, and then we have a serious problem

      1. Frankly

        The “insist” point is the main problem here.  And it starts with “guidelines”.   My political/economic guidelines are pretty much to stop insisting and stop controlling and allow more individual freedom.  From your posts I see you having a bit of a libertarian streak like me.  Although we may not agree on all the topics, scope and extent, it is a common American principle and behavior to demand limited government and prevent the seemingly insatiable craving for an elite minority to subject everyone else to an ever expanding set of rules to live by… and the greater and greater taxation to keep growing the authority to enforce everyone to bend to their will.

        1. Tia Will

          an elite minority to subject everyone else to an ever expanding set of rules to live by”

          Do you mean kind of like the economic top 1% are able to do by purchasing the government that they want through unlimited campaign advertising ?

    3. Don Shor

      Government should support science. But government should never go so far as to influence and dictate what people eat through policy.

      Never? People should be able to buy any food they want with food stamps?

      1. Frankly

        Get free stuff from the government, then you have to accept the government telling you how to live.

        However, stop trying to tell me how to spend my money that I earned.  It is really none of your business if I eat red meat every meal.

        1. Tia Will

          Frankly

          It is really none of your business if I eat red meat every meal.”

          Why are you so sensitive that you believe that this is directed at you. You are intelligent, educated, articulate and probably pay for your own insurance. However, you are also extremely short sighted if you cannot appreciate that not all citizens of this country share all of  these traits and that some of them may be in need of and/or appreciative of the information.

          As I recall, it was you who during the fluoride debate suggested government would have a role in education about effective dental care.

          So why not just relax. If this doesn’t apply to you, don’t follow the guidelines. Frankly, as I am also, who do you think cares if you do or don’t follow best practices ?

           

        2. Frankly

          “I” was just a placeholder for “all”.

          We know something about our differences in views for social cause and human behavior.   Guidelines are a precursor to policy within your political construct.  There is nothing here at odds with my position on fluoride.  It is consistent to keep government out of forcing or mandating how we live our lives.

          I have only talked to one self-professed liberal that I respected on this subject.  When I challenged this notion that government needed all this means-tested caring for people if we are all supposed to be equal… he responded that he didn’t see everyone as equal. He sees that there are stupid and lazy people and then there are other smarter and harder working people.  And he just wants us to give stuff to the stupid and lazy people because most of them will be stupid and lazy until the day they die.  He says that the few really down on their luck and needing a hand-up are few and far between.  That the economy and private sector “caring” covers enough “hand up” benefits to help most of those people.

          I don’t agree with him.  I think most able-bodied and minded people have the capability to create a good life for themselves with a robust enough economy.  They can mostly lift themselves up.  And that is really the only true salvation for most people.  People cannot be propped up by handouts.  They are who they are by their own accomplishments.

          Moving toward mandated nutrition is propping them up.  But education services… I’m all for that.  As long as they are high quality and cost-effective.

    4. Davis Progressive

      i think the economy is going to be hurt by climate change more than it will be hurt by attempting to mitigate climate change.  moreover as david points out, we’re all going to pay for the environmental damage one way or another, we might as well account for the externalities in the cost of food and other production, otherwise we are masking it not avoiding it.

      1. Don Shor

        i think the economy is going to be hurt by climate change more than it will be hurt by attempting to mitigate climate change.

        That depends entirely on what policies are enacted. And I think most people would be on board with preparing and adapting to aspects of climate changes such as rising sea levels. Certainly those in coastal areas might be willing to pay more in taxes to build seawalls, for example. Depoliticizing the adaptation would be pretty simple. Mitigation is another matter, and some of the proposed remedies (such as a high enough carbon tax to effect behavior change) would be very controversial and likely would have disproportional impacts on lower income people.

      2. Frankly

        There you go DP.  Perfect example.  With the politicizing of science you not get to claim that adverse weather is the result of man-made carbon emissions and so industrialism and consumption is a sort of reverse “tax” on all of us and so we should restrict industrialism and consumption to “reduce” this tax.

        The problem is that science tells us that reducing carbon through bossy restrictions on industrialism and consumption will do nothing to impact climate change.

        The other problem is that we cannot predict climate change impacts.

        But I do agree with the concept of investment in adaption and risk mitigation.  That is the right thing to do regardless of if climate change is primarily man made, or God made.  Let’s reduce the frivolous and unnecessary spending in government so we can get back to spending it on this infrastructure.

  8. Robb Davis

    The article concerns “guidelines.”  Trust me, having worked for 25 years in the field of community-based nutrition are going to eat what they want.  However, there is absolutely NO downside to publishing guidelines that help inform individual choices.  None.  Adding the idea of analyzing the externalities associated with food production, transit, wastage, etc.  is part of creating informed consumers.  It is clear from this article that the field of estimating these externalities is in development (as is nutrition science itself) but in my view it is a welcome introduction.  There is no “bossiness” here merely an attempt to help people consider impacts of food choices.

    1. Anon

      The problem with injecting global warming into good nutrition policy is it unnecessarily politicizes an important health issue that needs to stand on its own.  For instance, what is most sustainable in regard to GHG emissions may not be affordable to the average family.  For instance, fresh produce can be very expensive out of season.  Hamburger may be considerably cheaper than fresh fish.

      Secondly, how many on here discussing this are vegetarians.  I suspect that will color thinking.

      Thirdly, man was meant to be a meat-eater, it is the natural order of things.  I am not knocking vegetarians, but it requires knowing what you are doing and extreme discipline to be a vegetarian, which is hard for many to cope with.

      1. hpierce

        To paraphrase a person who was not known for their concern for the lower income folk, “Let them eat fish!”

        Of course, she kinda’ lost her head on the nutrition/food issue.

      2. Frankly

        The other problem with this political negative branding of meat products is that farming requires fertilizer and fertilizer production requires massive amounts of energy and uses fossil fuels.  Organic methods cannot sustain the population of the world.

        The bottom line is that there is no free lunch.  Unless 2/3 of the global population goes away and the remaining survivors go back to surviving on wild tubers and wild grains and sustainable rodents for their food source, we will have to accept that adequate food production has some environmental impacts.

        But if man is not the primary cause of climate change, then those bossy types pushing their low consumption “vegi-matter” diets on the rest of us will be required to do so from a position of nutrition science only.  That is the way it should be.

  9. Barack Palin

    Funny thing about taxing things like vegetables and nuts for harming the environment is plants and trees are actually decreasing the CO2 in the atmosphere.

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