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Improving your government’s nutrition advice

Free Market Reflections with Steve Dittmer

Seems I’m always apologizing for something from down here that migrates north and causes trouble. This time, though, I’d like to shed some light on how to fix things, in case you’d like suggestions to add to your own ideas. I’m referring to our influence on your Canada’s Food Guide.

First, a little history you might already know vaguely. Back in the ’70s, a near neighbour of yours, Sen. George McGovern (D) from the southernmost Dakota, took an interest in human nutrition, especially how food products from animals affected human health. He formed a committee, the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, and eventually issued a report. A McGovern staffer, with no nutrition background but an antipathy towards all the “big hats” who trooped in to see McGovern from the “far west,” drafted the report.

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The report was the beginning of the theory that Americans would be healthier if they ate fewer animal products, especially red meat and dairy products, and increased their intake of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. That has been the official U.S. government nutritional recommendation — our Dietary Guidelines — since that report came out in 1977. In the meantime, government nutritionists, doctors and researchers have cherry-picked the studies that appeared to bolster their case and ignored the studies that contradicted that approach. Meanwhile, Americans as a whole heeded the government’s recommendations, cut consumption of beef and pork, drank less milk, ate less cheese and used less butter — and got fatter and incurred more diabetic problems. The government experts ignored the obvious trends and concluded that Americans were still eating too much meat and dairy. They needed to cut back.

By the time the 2015 Dietary Goals were in the drafting stages, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) was actually considering removing lean meat from the approved food list entirely. When livestock groups, nutritionists and health experts — aware of recent research contradicting the high carb-low animal products approach — got wind of this, controversy erupted for the first time in proportion to the problem. An all-out war escaped from behind the professional scenes and into the public eye, the scientific journals and, eventually, politics.

The upshot was a call from Congress for a study of the entire Dietary Guidelines process by the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NAS).

Part of the problem with the process before was that the staff controlled the library of research upon which the committee was to rely on for information. Bias from the staff had crept into the library, weeding out research that contradicted the by-now decades old theories and only allowing in studies that bolstered the government theory. A key NAS recommendation was to separate out the selection of studies to go into the library, the evaluation of research quality and selection of topics for a set of guidelines and the selection of the committee members. This approach made it more difficult for one or two people to dominate the process, as a different group handled each section of the process. The whole point was to tie the Dietary Guidelines to science, the best and latest science available, not the prejudices and poor research of the past. It was hoped by many that professionals who had developed products, practices and clinics based on the old theory would not dominate the committee.

The NAS committee concluded that inclusion of “both financial and nonfinancial conflicts of interest is important” in selecting DGAC members. Non-financial conflicts can include organizational memberships, academic or professional advancement, and published research. It may not be possible to eliminate conflicts of interest but transparency allows them to be managed and limited. Sometimes the required expertise cannot be found without some conflicts of interest.

The NAS recommended using a third party to review the nominees, to have the two federal agencies review the slate of candidates and then post the proposed committee for public comment, allowing time for examining bias and conflicts of interest. The NAS also suggested a more standardized, less subjective selection process.

Nutrition professionals have suggested the whole research process be updated. Information technology and the approaches for compiling data from many studies or meta-studies have advanced.

Another recommendation would make the end result more useful to the public. Right now the DGAC is appointed, and then they decide what topics to pursue, obviously influenced by their interests and backgrounds. The NAS recommended a separate body review the research and select topics, based on population needs. Then, DGAC members can be selected who have interests and expertise on those topics.

USDA and Health and Human Services are the two agencies which handle the process, alternating the lead every five years. The guidelines are widely circulated, shaping the public’s food choices, government feeding programs, food companies’ products and commercials and the recommendations of nutritionists and doctors — including other countries.

That includes, as you’ve discovered, Canada.

About the author

Contributor

Steve Dittmer is the CEO of Agribusiness Freedom Foundation, a non-profit group promoting free market principles throughout the food chain. He can be reached at [email protected]

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