Beef with the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for 2015-2020

by Kindyl Boyer

February 9, 2016

Cover Photo Credits

Just like your fad-diet-loving aunt at Christmas dinner, the U.S. government has given its citizens a little advice on what they should be taking off their plates this year, most notably: sugar. So, go ahead and finish off your secret stash of Christmas cookies you’ve been harboring in your freezer, but before you fool anyone with your “healthy” yogurt check out its nutritional facts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services’s (HHS) 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans claims that the average citizen consumes over 13 percent of his or her calories from added sugars, like those commonly found in sodas, fruity drinks, sweets and processed foods (even those boasting slogans like, “Natural!” or “Light!”). (Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020, 2016.) These guidelines recommend curbing added sugar intake to less than 10 percent of our daily calories. This is a victory for nutritionists and public health officials who blame sugar for the prevalence of obesity and diabetes in our nation. (Eunjung Cha.) 

The other victorious party? The meat industry. This past October, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer gave a press release on the consumption of red and processed meat. The agency labeled processed meat as carcinogenic to humans and red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (IRAC, 2015). The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which is responsible for the initial report that USDA and HHS base their guidelines on, came to a similar conclusion by including red meat in their definition of processed meats, linking these meats to cancer and heart disease. Despite the evidence and recommendations given by these two organizations, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines did not reflect these findings. The guidelines have gracefully danced around making any clear connection between red meat and cancer or other diseases. (Heid, 2016.)

In order to understand the reasoning behind the USDA and HHS’s actions, we have to address the elephant in the room, or in this case, the cow. In Time Magazine, Dr. Walter Willett, chair of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health confirms, “‘The USDA’s primary stakeholders are major food producers and manufacturers.’” (Heid, 2016.) These stakeholders have the same goal as any other commercial industry: sell the product. Therefore when there is the chance that, let’s say, a Dietary Guideline report by the government could tarnish the name of their product, the food industry will pull out all the stops. A prime example is the case of Monsanto. A large corporation that produces the artificial growth hormone that is used on over 9 million dairy cows in the U.S., Monsanto sued Oakhurst Dairy, Inc. for labeling their products with, “Our Farmer’s Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones Used.” Oakhurst could not sustain the costs of the law suit and submitted to a settlement in which Oakhurst was required to include an additional label: “FDA states: No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones.” (Nestle; Barboza, 2003.)

Similarly, the meat industry reacted swiftly to the original report by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. This report stated a healthy diet consists of low amounts of red and processed meat, but included only in a footnote that lean meats could be a part of this healthy diet. The meat industry was angered by the placement of this information in a footnote rather than within the body of the report. Judging from the vague language of the final Dietary Guidelines, it is apparent the USDA and HHS heard their complaints. (Barclay, 2015.) The guidelines suggest moving towards other protein-rich foods like seafood or nuts, but there is no language that truly reflects the message given by the Advisory Committee or the International Agency for Research on Cancer. (Aubrey, 2016.)

So why should we care? It seems highly unlikely that your average American citizen looks to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for advice on what he or she should eat for dinner. But, it is important to understand that this report is behind what is served for lunch at public schools and the nutritional advice given to us by doctors. (Heid, 2016) If these guidelines are tainted by the interests of commercial food producers, we will end up maintaining the long, healthy life of food corporations rather than our own.


Sources Cited

Aubrey, Allison, and Maria Godoy. “New Dietary Guidelines Crack Down on Sugar. But Red Meat Gets A Pass.” NPR. 7 Jan. 2016. Web.

Barboza, David. “Monsanto Sues Dairy in Maine Over Label’s Remarks on Hormones.” New York Times. 12 July 2003. Web.

Barclay, Eliza. “Why There’s A Big Battle Brewing Over The Lean Meat In Your Diet.” NPR. 24 Mar. 2015. Web.

“Chapter 2: Shifts Needed To Align With Healthy Eating Patterns.” Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, 7 Jan. 2016. Web. 04 Feb. 2016. <>.

Eunjung Cha, Ariana. “This Is How Much Sugar You Can Have a Day, According to New Dietary Guidelines.” Washington Post. Web. 7 Jan. 2016. <>.

Heid, Markham. “Experts Say Lobbying Skeweed the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.”Time. 8 Jan. 2016. Web.

International Agency for Research on Cancer. World Health Organization. IARC Monographs Evaluate Consumption of Red Meat and Processed MeatIRAC. World Health Organization, 26 Oct. 2015. Web.

Nestle, Marion, and Ted Wilson. Food Industry and Political Influences on American Nutrition. Print.