June 4 2014

Nestle Reacts to Coalition Letter

Julie Gunlock

Marion Nestle’s widely read blog Food Politics mentions the coalition letter the Independent Women’s Forum and 23 other groups recently sent to the US Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services outlining our concerns about the process being used to update the U.S. Dietary Guidelines (the new guidelines will be revealed in 2015). Read that letter here.

In short, the coalition letter asks that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC--which is made up of representatives from both HHS and USDA) to base the 2015 dietary guidelines on the best and most up-to-date medical and scientific data, rather than the recommendations of environmental and food activists determined to alter the way Americans eat.

Of course, Nestle didn’t read it that way. She writes:

I received an e-mail from the communications director of the Independent Women’s Forum, a group whose mission is to “improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty.”

Interesting.

The group and its friends have just sent a letter to USDA and HHS complaining that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) is exceeding its mandate.

Among our most acute concerns is the “mission creep” of the Committee, which has expanded to include non-dietary factors such as “carbon footprints,” “climate change,” “urban agriculture,” and “green cleaning and pest control practices.”

This likely reflects the composition of the Committee, which is nearly all epidemiologists from elite academic institutions with no direct experience in the practical realities of how food is produced and what average Americans may choose to eat.

We need only consider the strongly negative reaction to recent changes to the school lunch rules to understand what is at risk if this Committee attempts to dictate over-reaching changes to the American diet.

This would be funny if it weren’t part of the Republican agenda to roll back improvements in nutrition advice and practice aimed at preventing obesity and its related chronic diseases.

What the IWF is saying is that its members know better about what’s good for health than all those elite epidemiologists, scientists, and other experts on the committee who are worried about what climate change will do to our food supply.

Let’s hope the agencies ignore this letter.

It’s sad but not at all surprising that Nestle, a well-respected nutritionist, has the rather odd view that our letter is part of some right wing conspiracy to roll back “improvements in nutrition advice” when, in fact, the coalition’s goal is exactly the opposite.

In fact, many of those who signed onto the letter have previously praised the work of the past Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committees (DGAC), which during the 2010-update process retired the Food Pyramid in favor of the Choose My Plate icon. That update advised Americans to reduce carbohydrates, eat lean meats, fish, and dairy and increase the amount of fruits and vegetables.

These were good recommendations that many of those who signed the letter supported.

Of course, it’s far easier to portray the coalition of concerned organizations as a scary right-wing mob demanding the DGAC work Twinkies, sugary sodas, candy and other items (that make Bloomberg break out in a rash) into the updated 2015 recommendations.

Instead, the coalition has a few, very reasonable requests: 1) that the DGAC continues to improve the dietary guidelines based on the best available science, 2) it doesn’t reflect ideological or political views that are out-of-step with the majority of Americans, 3) it respects the special dietary traditions of several American ethnic groups, and 4) it ensures that the recommendations don’t increase food costs and accessibility for the American consumer.

Is that so scary? Does that sound like some wacky right-wing plan to destroy left-wing dreams of salad eating Americans?

While I was sad to see Ms. Nestle’s lashing out at IWF for spearheading the coalition letter, I was somewhat reassured this morning to see that many of the comments on her Food Politics blog post disagree with her reactionary tone.  One commenter wrote:

I think the letter is a little overly worried, but I can see room for worry when the committee thinks they need to factor in climate change in order to what to tell people to eat. This isn't in the mission statement. And seeing Alice Lichtenstien as Vice President tells me I won't be adjusting my dietary habits to what they come up with. I do think Marion oversells the expertise - and wisdom - of this group - after all, academic epidemiologists have given plenty of bad advice over the last 60 years, going back to Ancel Keys. Nina Teicholz's new book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet reveals a lot about the academic epidemiology world's nutrition advice over that time. The most important thing to look for is double blind clinical studies, epidemiological studies can't prove anything.

Another writes:

Whatever happened to nutrition??When cholesterol levels first became a population-wide target for dietary intervention, dietary guidelines began a tailspin from which they may never recover.?That it should be mainly right-wing advocates for self-interest who are pointing these things out should be cause for shame among the progressives who allowed it to happen. I won't repeat what OliveChirper states below but agree with it.?If overpopulation becomes a recognised threat to the environment and health (as it arguably should be), will dietary guidelines then prescribe foods that lower fertility? At this rate, that is exactly what we can expect.

And another:

The Dietary Guidelines are supposed to bring the best available science to offering guidance on what foods and dietary patterns should be consumed in the interests of individual and public health. I agree, of course, that the broader impacts of agriculture on the environment have profound implications for public health: for instance, climate change increases heat waves, facilitates the spread of some diseases, raises the risk of flooding by elevating sea levels (independently of what it does to the storms themselves), and increases the frequency of asthma attacks increasing smog due to high temperature and temperature inversion layers. But those are, it seems to me, beyond the proper scope of the Dietary Guidelines.

Let’s hope Ms. Nestle reads the comments on her own blog and rethinks her own reaction to a very reasonable coalition letter.

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