Professors chew on dietary politics at D.C. event

Two of Cornell’s leading nutrition experts appeared in Washington, D.C., March 18 to discuss an extensive proposed rewrite of the federal government’s official Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Tom Brenna, professor of human nutrition, food science and technology, served as a member of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. David R. Just is the director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs and a professor in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

They appeared in the nation’s capital as part of Inside Cornell, a series of public policy roundtables. The pair spoke before an audience consisting largely of journalists who closely follow these issues. National Public Radio correspondent Allison Aubrey moderated the panel.

Brenna said the most fundamental change proposed for the new dietary guidelines, which are updated every five years, “is a focus on overall healthy eating patterns, rather than individual foods.”

Nonetheless, he noted several recommendations from the advisory panel that have drawn considerable public attention since the draft version was released. These include an endorsement of moderate alcohol consumption, a green light for 3-5 cups of coffee per day, and reversal of an earlier recommendation that Americans reduce their intake of dietary cholesterol from foods like eggs and shrimp.

Brenna also lauded what he called an emerging emphasis on “nutrition above the neck,” a reference to the role diet plays in neurocognitive health. His Cornell lab, for example, conducts extensive research on nutrients including omega-3 fatty acids, which are proving to be effective in treating depression.

Just focuses on how consumers make their decisions about what foods to purchase and eat.

He said the government’s new nutritional guidance “will probably generate no response at all at the consumer level, at least initially. The primary effect will come from the millions of meals directly influenced by the government, including public school lunches, hospital food and military meals.”

Over time, however, as the new advice takes hold, it will start to be felt as “consumers make their shopping lists or decide which groceries to display prominently in their kitchens, as opposed to buried in cabinets.”

Just also stressed the positive role the food industry can play by adjusting how it markets and advertises its products. Touting the good taste and benefits of healthier foods on packaging, he noted, is far more effective than any government warning about the risks of a poor diet.

This being Washington, the journalists also were interested in discussing several behind-the-scenes lobbying and political controversies swirling around the dietary guideline recommendations.

These primarily involve the meat industry, which wants the advisory committee’s recommendation that Americans eat less red and processed meat toned down. The livestock industry also is concerned about new language that links overreliance on an animal-based diet to environmental problems including greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.

The sugar industry is balking at a recommendation that the sugars added to processed foods be included on their nutrition facts label.

Those and other controversies will no doubt follow the advisory panel’s recommendations. They have been sent on to the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, who will pass final judgment later this year and release the official new edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Art Silverman is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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