New Dietary Guidelines Proposed Amidst Controversy
By Michele Simon
Originally published on, May 2000.

While most Americans have probably never even heard of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, many could at least recognize the Food Guide Pyramid, which evolved over the years from the Four Food Groups. But the pyramid is technically just one component of the much lengthier Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Every five years, a committee of nutrition experts recommends revisions to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency charged with telling Americans how to eat right. On February 3, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee submitted its recommendations to the USDA and the final version is due out shortly.

While this might seem like just another federal bureaucracy spinning its wheels, the nutritional recommendations that make up the copious pages of the Dietary Guidelines have widespread impact. Just about every major health organization such as the American Heart Association, along with government food assistance programs such as the National School Lunch Program, looks to the USDA as the leader in making sound nutrition advice and adjusts their policies accordingly. So it should come as no surprise that the recently released recommended revisions for the year 2000 have been met with some criticism, including a lawsuit charging conflicts of interests among six of the 11 committee members.

What's New in the Nutritional Recommendations?
At first glance, the advisory panel's recommendations offer few surprises and utilizes pretty tame language. For example, they recommend a "moderate" intake of total fat and encourage restriction of saturated fat and trans fatty acids. New this year is an emphasis on safe food handling and a warning against relying on supplements too heavily for nutritional needs.

The 10 specific guidelines proposed by the advisory panel are:

  • Aim for a healthy weight.
  • Become physically active each day.
  • Let the (Food Guide) Pyramid guide your food choices.
  • Eat a variety of grains daily, especially whole grains.
  • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables daily.
  • Keep food safe to eat.
  • Choose a diet that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and moderate in total fat.
  • Choose beverages and foods that limit your intake of sugars.
  • Choose and prepare foods with less salt.
  • If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation.

Controversy Over Committee Members and Dairy Products
Given the rising levels of obesity in this country as an indicator of Americans' poor eating habits, the committee's modest approach to recommended changes raises the question of whether the federal government is keeping in step with known scientific research. Should they be making more bold recommendations that might have a greater impact on the public's health?

According to some nutrition experts, the answer is a resounding yes. Dr. T. Colin Campbell, Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, says that "although the most recent version of the Dietary Guidelines takes small steps in the right direction, this group will never take seriously the really important nutrition research information." He is particularly concerned with the Guidelines' continued emphasis on dairy products, despite what is known about potential health problems in children. He attributes this emphasis to "the professional and/or personal association of the majority of the committee members with the dairy industry."

Agreeing with this assessment, the Washington DC-based nonprofit organization, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine filed a lawsuit in January charging that six of the 11 committee members had "inappropriate financial ties" ties to the meat, dairy or egg industries. In a related national campaign, PCRM, known for promoting a vegetarian diet, has been calling on the government since last March to revise the Dietary Guidelines to accommodate those ethnic groups who cannot tolerate dairy products.

Then, in an unexpected turn of events, the advisory committee's recommendations actually declared that soymilk is on a par with cow's milk as a source of calcium. As a result, PCRM dismissed that portion of their lawsuit concerning the composition of the committee, but are still alleging violations of public access to government documents and meetings.

Mindy Kursban, staff counsel for PCRM is confident that the soymilk recommendation was a direct result of pressure from the lawsuit because there no mention of it in any draft report until the suit was filed. "We see this as a very significant step forward, especially in light of the tremendous influence the dairy industry has on nutritional policy in this country. While we think the committee should have gone further, we are very pleased with this victory," she says.

What Will Happen Next?
The USDA is currently reviewing the Committee's recommendations, along with public comments. Release of the final version of the 2000 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is expected by the end of May. Often the government adopts an advisory committee's recommendations with little changes. However, since the dairy industry is sure to make a fuss with the USDA over the soymilk inclusion, stay tuned to see if that stays in the final version. If it doesn't, PCRM promises to let us know about it.

For more information:
Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine