“Since 1980, when the government issued its first set of dietary guidelines, the number of Americans who are obese or have type-2 diabetes has more than doubled.” How do you know if food is healthy? Do you read the nutrition facts looking for calories, sugar content, and fat content? Do you look for government-approved labeling, certifying the item as organic or non-GMO? For most people in America, the idea of “healthy food” comes straight from Uncle Sam. Every five years, the USDA releases a new set of dietary guidelines, which are the basis of nutritional posters across public schools nationwide, the origin of “Take 5” dietary groups, and the foundation of the Food Pyramid. These guidelines inform nutritional health classes taught at schools, doctors’ dietary recommendations to their patients, and even food nutrition labeling. With their widespread implications, it’s no surprise that the USDA’s guidelines have often gone under careful scrutiny and have become quite controversial. For example, the USDA’s Food Pyramid made fat content the devil, pitting it as the cause of heart disease and cancer. However many nutritionists and food scientists paint a different picture, claiming that a diet rich in carbohydrates, the base of the Food Pyramid, brings more people to the hospital. Since 1980, when the government issued its first set of dietary guidelines, the number of Americans who are obese or have type-2 diabetes has more than doubled.
We’re taught that healthy food is low in sugar and calories, that we need carbs from grains, calcium from milk and protein from meat, but the reality of “healthy food” is much more complicated than it seems. In 2010, the Supreme Court released a ruling in a landmark case, Citizens United v. FEC. This case dealt with the intersection of the First Amendment and corporate spending, concluding that “corporate personhood” applies in the context of free speech. For a long time, the U.S. government didn’t allow corporations to spend money on political campaigns in an effort to decrease the risk of corruption. However, the Citizens United ruling gave corporations the freedom to contribute money to political campaigns furthering their agenda. As a result, lobbying efforts by large food and beverage producers and brands keep their interests embedded within public food and health policy. With significant power over legislation, major food and beverage companies have a huge influence on what gets published in the USDA’s dietary guidelines.
Just this year, 215 clients lobbied the food industry in Washington. In 2015, as the USDA was releasing its dietary guidelines, 254 clients lobbied the food industry, releasing 1,175 reports in total. Some of the lobbyists’ largest clients should come as no surprise and include the likes of: PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Monsanto, Nestle, and McDonalds, to name a few. When dealing with companies as massive as these, you can be sure that large sums of cash are involved. In 2015 alone, Coca-Cola spent $8,670,000 on lobbying, the Meat industry spent $4,578,699, and the U.S. agricultural industry spent a whopping $18,840,235. With controversy over the USDA’s release of the 2015 dietary guidelines, it seems that money, power, and politics prove more important than our nation’s health.
The USDA’s most recent guidelines ignored some important points in order to appease the food industry giants at a compromise of the nation’s health. The guidelines ignored the fact that consuming less red meat can severely decrease one’s risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The guidelines also neglected to recommend a decrease in sugary beverage consumption. With the meat and beverage industry laying down such large sums of money, it is no coincidence that the USDA’s guidelines brush over these facts.
Furthermore, thanks to the generous spending of the agricultural industry, the USDA completely axed sustainability from the guidelines. Sustainable farming, herding, and manufacturing processes are ones that preserve resources and have minimal impact on the environment. Eating sustainably attained food, such as grass-fed cows or crops free of harmful pesticides and chemicals, proves in fact to be healthier for both your body and the environment. It seems that your health and the environment are no match for the deep pockets of a small group of profit driven corporations that control America’s industrialized food system.
Why does all of this matter? The heavy hand that major food and beverage companies have on the guidelines becomes deeply disturbing when you think about the far reaches of the USDA’s dietary guidelines and the implications they have on our nation’s health. Childhood obesity is rising, rates of type 2 diabetes are increasing, and heart disease still claims 600,000 American lives every year, all despite improved technology, attention and resources given to food science and medical research. It’s hard not to wonder whether the decaying health of our nation is a product of capitalism, mere collateral in companies’ quest to meet their bottom line and maximize profits for themselves and their shareholders.
If you enjoyed this piece and want to learn more about the U.S. food system, sign up and be the first to know when we post more content like this!
Guest Author: Rebecca Shi