Artificially Sweetened: How Politics Influenced Science in New Diet Recommendations

The federal government has just released a new set of nutritional guidelines and, as always, they are the result of both science and policy. These include conflicting changes: for example, sugar now has a limit, but cholesterol does not. Here’s your guide to what’s new and what’s not, and experts disagree.

These dietary guidelines are updated every five years as the science of nutrition and medicine advances. Not because your body has begun to digest food differently, but over time we better understand how our body works. When the new study suggests that the old wisdom may be wrong, there is a temptation to throw up your hands, you wonder whether knocks are too confused with food , and decide that we’re just going to have everything we want, and call it moderation . But this Coca-Cola won’t get any healthier because you chose not to take care of it.

You should definitely read the manual , but be aware of the controversial issues. Use your critical thinking skills and make your own decisions. The perfect scientific truth about nutrition is an unrealistic goal: there are simply no simple experiments that can answer important questions, such as whether it is okay to eat bacon every morning. So a government committee takes the evidence we have – which is necessarily incomplete – and makes decisions about what we as a nation should do based on that evidence. These “shoulds” are opinions, so they are ripe for arguments. In this sense, politics is the top layer of science.

How the manual is written

The process goes something like this: The Dietary Advisory Committee reviews thousands of published, peer-reviewed studies and reports on its findings. The USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services then jointly issue nutritional guidelines based on this report. Lobbying, action by Congress, and comments from food industry, medical and healthcare associations form these final guidelines. If a rule promotes health but hurts industry profits, it may not make it into the final guidelines – at least not without a fight.

As we previously reported, a surprising number of experts agreed that the committee’s 2015 report began with a reasonably accurate approach to the best dietary science available. However, you cannot please everyone all the time, and the ready-made instructions have some clear differences from this report. Here are the main noteworthy recommendations and controversies surrounding them.


What the guidelines say: “Eat less than 10 percent of your daily calories from added sugars.”

What has changed: This is completely new: Previous guidelines did not set limits on added sugar. Instead, they said that people should reduce their intake of certain fats and added sugars, and that the appropriate amount of the two together would be anywhere from 5% to 15% of their total calories.

Compared to the 2015 scientific report, there have also been some changes. Fruit juice concentrates have been discreetly excluded from the Advisory Committee’s definition of added sugars (they are commonly used as a sweetener in “natural” foods ).

The out-of-the-box guidelines also relaxed phrases about avoiding soda and other sugary drinks, instead suggesting that people should limit the sugar itself. Currently, the average American gets 13% of their calories from added sugars , half of which come from drinks. It depends on age, as shown in the graph above. One can of Coca-Cola is enough to exceed the daily limit (11.5% on a 2,000 calorie diet).

Says what : Almost everyone agrees that we need to eat less sugar , so this rule was widely welcomed. The World Health Organization also recommends a 10 percent limit (noting that 5% would be even better), but these include both natural and added sugars. Thus, compared to the WHO recommendations, the US recommendations are weaker.

It is difficult to follow the sugar rule without a clear way of knowing how much sugar is in food. The US Food and Drug Administration , which deals with food labeling, has proposed adding added sugars to the list . Convenience food manufacturers are struggling with this idea .

As you would expect, artificial sweetener manufacturers are happy with the new rule , while the Sugar Association issued a statement claiming that the new recommendations are not based on absolutely solid science with “proof of cause and effect.” This is because nutritional science never has this level of confidence. The idea of ​​limiting sugar is as close as possible to absolute victory.

Even those who love the new rule may still be critical of its description. Marion Nestlé , an analyst and author of Food Policy , says the guidelines lack specific guidance on sugary drinks. She writes :

[B] These dietary guidelines, like all previous versions, recommend foods when they suggest “eat more.” But they switch to nutrients whenever they suggest “eat less.”

The 2015 Diet Guidelines

  • Saturated fat is a euphemism for meat.
  • Added sugar is a euphemism for sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • Sodium is a euphemism for processed foods and unhealthy foods.

Think of it as a policy: food manufacturers want you to eat more of their food, so you rarely see a government document that says you need to eat less. (Nestlé detailed this unofficial policy in her book.) Instead, the guidelines talk about either restricting nutrients, such as sugar, or “choosing” other foods, such as replacing water with soda.

Bottom line : you already know. Eat less sugar, drink less soda.


What the guide says : “A healthy eating plan includes … a variety of protein foods, including … lean meats,” but restricts saturated fat. Except for teenage boys and men, no one is explicitly ordered to eat less meat.

What’s changed : The meat limit included in the science report has been removed from the final guidelines. The committee made a landmark decision to include sustainability as a factor in the guidelines and recommended reducing meat consumption in part because of its environmental impact. There is no mention of this in the ready-made manuals. Politico believes that the change came as a result of “fierce lobbying” by the meat industry.

Who says what : On the surface, there is widespread support: the Center for Science in the Public Interest , which tends to favor low-fat and vegetarian diets, applauds between the lines for “general advice on eating less meat.” … “In the meat industry, this is interpreted as” meat approval. ” (Marion Nestlé says meat producers “should bottle champagne.”) The Ohio Country Journal writes:

The bottom line is, according to the [National Pork Council], meat remains an important part of the American diet. The 2015 Nutritional Guidelines for Americans do not contain any provision that should encourage federal, institutional, or consumer measures to move away from meat as the main source of protein in their diets, and do not include extraneous issues such as requiring food manufacturers to comply with sustainability standards or taxation. certain foods as a way to reduce their consumption.

Sustainable development has been a hot issue in the development of the guidelines. Congress tried to remove the reference to sustainability with a directive issued in 2014 , even before the advisory committee even made its report saying the guidelines should stick exclusively to nutrition. The USDA and HHS Secretaries agreed to remove this issue .

It is difficult to justify excluding sustainability from guidelines when economic considerations are evident in their design and the USDA is mandated to promote both . After all, guidelines have a big impact on what foods Americans grow and buy, which in turn affects the economy and the environment. Dr. David Katz of the Yale University Prevention Research Center , who calls complete recommendations a “national predicament,” noted the “hypocrisy” of including exercise in recommendations while avoiding resilience – after all, exercise isn’t just about nutrition.

Groups like the American Cancer Society objected to the lack of a meat restriction for another reason: the link between red meat and cancer. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has ruled that red and processed meat is “likely” to cause colorectal cancer . The name is less definite than it sounds , but concerns about the link between cancer and red or processed meat have been around for a long time. The dietary guidelines say nothing about this.

Bottom line : meat is more dangerous for the environment than most plant foods; red and processed meats may be linked to cancer. We’ll understand if you choose to be wrong and eat less.


The recommendation states : “Consumption of saturated fat should be limited to less than 10 percent of calories per day, replacing them with unsaturated fat.” The unsaturated (“good”) fats are still fine, and the trans fats should be “as low as possible.” For most adults, total fat should be 25-35% of calories.

What’s changed : The 10% limit for saturated fat is new and hasn’t changed according to the advisory committee’s report. The total fat content changed insignificantly, from 20 to 35%. The dietary guidelines have always been tough on fat and especially saturated fat, and this is still true.

Who says what : The Washington Post called the decision to stick to saturated fat restrictions “the most controversial move.” Saturated fat has been frowned upon for decades, but now more and more scientists believe it was a mistake . We looked at this idea here: Numerous studies show that saturated fat, after all, may not be bad for your heart .

But not everyone agrees with this theory. The American Heart Association continues to warn people against saturated fat , criticizing research that says saturated fat is okay. They recommend an even lower intake, with saturated fat accounting for 5-6% of calories.

Both camps and dietary guidelines agree that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are still good for you. These are fats found in plant foods such as nuts and avocados. They do not recommend substituting carbohydrate calories for saturated fat as this also increases the risk of heart disease . And everyone still hates trans fats .

Bottom line : good fats are good, trans fats are bad, but saturated fats are a mess. The pendulum of scientific truth seems to be heading for the “saturated fat is okay” camp, but it’s too early to say for sure. Your call.


What the guidelines say : People should eat as little cholesterol in their diet as possible while following a healthy diet.”

What has changed : Guidelines in previous years set a cholesterol limit of 300 milligrams. A 2015 advisory committee scrapped the idea of ​​limiting cholesterol altogether , writing that “cholesterol is not a nutrient that causes over-consumption.” The ready-made recommendations returned the idea of ​​lowering cholesterol, but there were no specific numbers.

Who says what : The Doctors’ Committee on Responsible Medicine has threatened to sue the USDA and HHS , saying the cholesterol warnings were the result of illegal influence from the egg industry.

But the absence of a maximum cholesterol level brings the US recommendations in line with the recommendations of other countries and with what we have known for a long time: cholesterol in food has practically no effect on the cholesterol in your bloodstream, which matters.

Bottom line : come on, eat these eggs.

Other noteworthy recommendations

The rest of the recommendations are less controversial. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Sodium still has a limit of 2,300 milligrams (the average American gets 3,400).
  • Alcohol is allowed: one drink per day for women, two for men, and zero if you don’t drink normally (in other words, don’t start). There is a handy table on how to count drinks . For example, a 120-ounce beer is one drink if it contains 5% alcohol.
  • Caffeine appears for the first time in the recommendation. Up to 400 milligrams “could be included in a healthy diet,” but again, you don’t need to start drinking if you haven’t already. As recommended, you get five 8-ounce cups of regular coffee or one Starbucks Venti .
  • The amount of fruits and vegetables has not changed (2 cups of fruits, 2.5 cups of vegetables), and you should still eat your colors – in other words, consume red and orange vegetables, yellow and dark green leafy ones. Each group has a different profile of vitamins and other nutrients.
  • Grains are also stable at 6 ounces per day, and at least half of that should be whole grains. The new rules include Mediterranean and vegetarian diets with slightly different amounts of each food group than the standard “healthy American style,” so check them out if you’re the type to weigh your grain to the nearest half ounce.

Most of the guidelines have not changed much since their last release in 2010, but some of the details represent an evolving understanding of what our bodies do with food. Food marketers are already planning how they’ll take advantage of the new guidelines , and McCormick is sending out press releases about using their spices instead of salt. A spokesperson for a PR company representing several processed food companies described the recommendation as “no bad food, only bad portions.” In other words, this is common in the food industry, but now we have a little more information.


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