On January 7, 2015 the USDA and HHS jointly released the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Dietary Guidelines is a policy document that forms the basis of national nutrition policy for the next five years.

Unchanged from 2010, American diets continue to be calorically abundant but nutrient poor. In recognition of the current epidemic of obesity and chronic disease, similar to previous iterations the 2015 Dietary Guidelines promote a diet made up foods that are more nutrient-dense than calorie-dense.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines process has been controversial and contentious. Beginning with a plan to review the science around environmental sustainability as a part of dietary guidance in the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, followed by recommendations for a national soda tax and culminating with heavy industry lobbying to have language in the omnibus budget dictating the grade of evidence necessary for inclusion in the policy document.

Reading between the lines, what can we take away from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines? A careful read – of the modern mobile friendly interactive microsite – reveals the following:

  1. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines are likely to be most notable and controversial for the recommendations they don’t make rather than the ones that they do. Heavy lobbying by industry and congressional intervention is credited for leading to the exclusion of any recommendations found in the Advisory Committee Report that would specifically promote a plant based diet and limitations of consumption of meat; recommendations or statements linking human health and environmental sustainability; and recommendations regarding controversial fiscal and social policy measures like soda taxes, menu labeling or limitations on use of SNAP dollars.

    So What: Regardless of whether you think that there is too much industry influence or the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee went rogue, everyone can agree the process is broken. Perhaps the longest lived legacy of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines will not have to do with the policy document itself but the outcome of the public scrutiny over its development. Congress has given the Institute of Medicine $1 million to review the integrity of the Dietary Guidelines process.

  2. From a nutrition perspective there are relatively few changes to recommended dietary patterns. The most significant change, and the “big win” for public health advocates, is a specific recommendation to limit added sugars to less than ten percent of total calories. This aligns the U.S. to WHO recommendations on added sugar consumption and was not unexpected. But this carries with it significant policy implications for pending regulations like nutrition labeling updates. Similarly anticipated, a win for the egg industry, cholesterol is no longer a nutrient of concern despite outcry from some public health groups. Despite a strong push from groups like the American Cancer Society to include recommendations to lower meat consumption, the only really noteworthy unexpected inclusion was language around lowering protein consumption for men and teenage boys.  

    So What: The Dietary Guidelines have long been criticized for their ineffectiveness at changing behavior.  There has never been a behavioral scientist on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and the recommendations are often “wonky” and hard for a lay audience to actualize in real food terms. While some may be frustrated by the relatively “milk toast” 2015 Dietary Guidelines, nominal changes and maintaining common-sense, consistent nutrition recommendations may ultimately prove to be a benefit for consumer understanding and health.

  3. This iteration of the Dietary Guidelines specifically states an intention to make "what to eat" food-based recommendations. However, as noted by Dr. Marion Nestle, as in past iterations they make nutrient based "what not to eat" recommendations. If the “what not to eat” statements were similarly food based it would have forced the Dietary Guidelines to make politically challenging strong, explicit statements to limit soda (added sugars), junk food (sodium), and meat (saturated fat). Nestle also notes that the absence of meaningful portion size recommendations that go beyond “ounce equivalents” is a significant missed opportunity.

    So What: To be sure, these are not new criticisms of the Dietary Guidelines. But are often cited as the primary reason why the Dietary Guidelines send a mixed message to consumers making them ineffective at changing dietary patterns. The Choose My Plate website has already been updated with new consumer directed messages many of which are more pointed than the policy document. This may be a back door way for the government to communicate the more politically challenging messages without having to make them policy.

  4. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines explicitly call on industry to take on a proactive leadership role in promoting healthy dietary patterns by engaging in holistic and systematic reformulation of their products. Rather than focus on the reduction of a single nutrient like salt, sugar or saturated fat the Secretaries would like to see industry (manufacturers and food service alike) develop overall healthier, more nutrient-dense and less calorie-dense products that include whole grains, vegetable-based proteins, low-fat or no-fat diary, and fruits and vegetables.

    So What: Innovation in better-for-you and wellbeing promoting foods and beverages in retail, food service and restaurant settings for a range of consumer needs and across all price points is a major growth area for the broader food and beverage industry. The industry is evolving, maybe not as fast as some would like but change is happening. Positive reinforcement from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines that public-private partnerships and industry action will only help accelerate these changes.

  5. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines include a section calling on all sectors to be actively promoting their key messages and creating healthier food environments, noting "everyone has a role to play". They call on schools and workplaces to engage in policies and practices to make healthier choices easier choices.  

    So What: This should serve as a call to action for the food and beverage industry not only in their capacity as manufacturers and retailers but as large employers to demonstrate leadership and progressive employee wellness practices. Employers in every sector, but notably also health insurers, should take note here as it is well know that employee wellness has a significant impact on bottom line. Institution of internal policies, similar to the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity Healthy Meetings Toolkit are likely to be promoted in high level policy conversations and become the norm moving forward.
Melissa Musiker

Melissa Musiker, senior director, is APCO Worldwide's global food, consumer products & retail practice lead based in New York. Read More