Contradictory Evidence: Dietary Guidelines, Science, Industry, and the Healthy Nation Coalition
by Sam Knox
The economist Milton Friedman was an outspoken proponent of unregulated markets. He opposed regulation not so much in theory as in practice, based on the near-universal observation that we tend to take a keen interest in any organization that can affect our prosperity. Just as surely as night follows day, he maintained, regulatory agencies would come to be controlled by the very people they were intended to regulate.
The primary mission of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is advocacy, not regulation, but the entities most affected by its activities have taken a keen interest nevertheless.
Established in 1862, a much more innocent time in agriculture, the USDA’s original mission was “…to acquire and to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture in the most general and comprehensive sense of that word, and to procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants.”
Not surprisingly, the mission of the USDA has grown a great deal in the intervening 150 years. It now includes “…expanding markets for agricultural products and support international economic development, further developing alternative markets for agricultural products and activities, providing financing needed to help expand job opportunities and improve housing, utilities and infrastructure in rural America, enhancing food safety by taking steps to reduce the prevalence of foodborne hazards from farm to table, improving nutrition and health by providing food assistance and nutrition education and promotion, and managing and protecting America’s public and private lands working cooperatively with other levels of government and the private sector.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone standing in opposition to expanding or alternative markets, financing for rural America, enhancing food safety, or protecting public lands. Since the USDA began issuing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 1980, on the other hand, providing “nutrition education and promotion” has been considerably more controversial.
Image: CDC, via The Healthy Nation Coalition
An unhealthy interest from the food and pharmaceutical industries would seem unavoidable when, in a market economy, recommending what we should eat is the same as recommending what we should buy, and while outright bribery is well-established within the pantheon of corporate malfeasance, it turns out there may be a less risky and more subtle way for the private sector to make its presence felt.
Enter the American Dietetic Association.
The American Dietetic Association (now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) is the credentialing organization for Registered Dietitians, and RD’s are three of the twelve members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), the panel on whose report the Dietary Guidelines are based.
But tucked away in the “Acknowledgements” section of the current Guidelines is this: “…the Departments [USDA, HHS] acknowledge the contributions of numerous other internal departmental and external scientists and staff who contributed to the production of this document, including the members of the Independent Scientific Review Panel, who peer reviewed the recommendations of the document to ensure they were based on the preponderance of the scientific evidence.”
Given the crucial nature of the Panel’s role, you would be forgiven for thinking that the identities of its members are public information, but you would be wrong, and if not for the efforts of the Healthy Nation Coalition and its Executive Director, Adele Hite, the Panel’s members would remain anonymous to this day.
The Healthy Nation Coalition (HNC) is an organization of academics, scientists, doctors, professionals, and concerned citizens who believe, among other things, that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are far too heavily influenced by members of the food industry and are, as a result, not based on “the preponderance of scientific evidence”.
The HNC engages in a variety of activities to raise awareness of its guiding principles and mission, but perhaps their most important contribution to the conversation surrounding the Dietary Guidelines came in the form of two requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to learn the names of the members of the Independent Review Panel.
It turns out that, of the eight members of the Panel charged with peer review of the Dietary Guidelines to ensure their compliance with the preponderance of scientific evidence, seven are Registered Dietitians and thus members of the American Dietetic Association.
This creates, at the very least, the appearance of a potential conflict for two reasons: The American Dietetic Association bases its recommendations almost exclusively on the preponderance of scientific evidence as contained in the USDA Dietary Guidelines, but what constitutes the “preponderance of scientific evidence” in the Dietary Guidelines is determined by a Panel made up almost exclusively of members of the American Dietetic Association.
You see the problem.
In addition, The American Dietetic Association is, in the words of Ms. Hite, an “incredibly industry-friendly” organization. How friendly? “An ongoing investigation by Congress recently revealed that the ADA receives over $1 million a year in payments from pharmaceutical companies and an undisclosed amount from companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Hershey” and the “ADA’s continuing education courses for RD’s are being taught by the Coca-Cola Company’s Beverage Institute” among others.
The American Dietetic Association, in other words, receives funding and continuing education from the Coca-Cola Company, while the Coca-Cola Company promotes consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages based, at least in part, on recommendations from the American Dietetic Association.
Again, you see the problem.
Now, neither I nor anyone else wants to issue a blanket condemnation of Registered Dieticians. While most of them simply parrot the recommendations contained in the Dietary Guidelines, others make a good-faith effort to serve their clients with evidence-based information.
Finally, showing an association, no matter how unsavory, between the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, The American Dietetic Association, and food or pharmaceutical companies doesn’t prove that the Guidelines aren’t based on the preponderance of scientific evidence. That’s a job for scientists themselves, and their case is best made here and here.
“…original mission was…”: The Agricultural Act of 1862
“…expanding markets…”: Current USDA Mission Statement
“…three of the twelve…”: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010
“…of the eight members…”: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010
“…an ongoing investigation…”: Documents Reveal USDA Dietary Guidelines Panel Dominated by ADA
“…incredibly industry-friendly…”: The Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb Show with Jimmy Moore, Episode 543: Adele Hite Pulls Back the Curtain On How Dietary Guidelines Get Made
“…promotes consumption…: Hitting the Sweet Spot in an Active, Healthy Lifestyle