The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is considering altering its recommendation for how much alcohol is appropriate for daily consumption based on current science. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. After all, can’t people just choose to not follow a guideline? There is no forced limit for how many glasses of wine a person can have with dinner, in their own home. 

However, this does matter to alcohol producers because if the government endorses the claim that consumption of any alcohol increases mortality, sales will be impacted and businesses will have to shoulder the cost. A negative signal from the HHS could have a billion-dollar impact on the alcohol industry, which is why the agency has received hundreds of comments concerned about the transparency and objectivity of the HHS’s process.

Science is continuously improving and we gain new knowledge all the time, so it makes sense that our understanding of nutrition changes. Doctors in the 1800s would recommend that patients smoke for their health, not understanding the long-term effects of smoking on the lungs. Arsenic was even used to treat ailments until its adverse side-effect, premature death, was uncovered. The discoveries we make today, such as knowledge about trans-fats and cholesterol, improve health recommendations a bit more marginally than our predecessors but they are still important. This is why every five years, the HHS updates its Dietary Guidelines “based on the preponderance of current scientific and medical knowledge.”

Nutrition advice can be generalized; all humans need certain amounts of particular vitamins and protein from foods to feel healthy. However, nutrition as a science is incredibly subjective and should be tailored to the individual, which is why there is a heavy debate every time the HHS’s nutritional guidelines are updated. There is even more pressure when considering past harm the agency unintentionally caused to farmers and retailers.  

Consider the egg—in 1968 American Heart Association announced a dietary recommendation that all individuals consume less than 300 mg of dietary cholesterol per day and no more than three whole eggs per week. Although this was not a government-associated organization, the perception that eggs hurt health had widespread industry impacts that hurt sales. In reality, eggs are an excellent source of protein and are recommended to eat as part of a well-rounded diet. But following the egg-health panic, it took many years and dozens of studies and research to rehabilitate the American public’s perception of the egg.

Most Americans drink alcohol occasionally. Humans have been fermenting and brewing alcohol for thousands of years, and moderate alcohol consumption has not been widely linked to an increase in mortality. But binge drinking is linked to an increase in mortality, so the Dietary Guidelines appropriately warn against binge drinking.

If the goal is to combat obesity and heart disease by discouraging binge drinking, then the agency ought to focus on the reasons why Americans are overdoing their alcohol consumption in the first place rather than create a casual cocktail panic, confusing consumers.