What should we eat to be healthy? That’s an important question, because, according to the recently released Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, what we eat has a lot to do with how healthy we are. It’s as simple as that.
But on a national level, it becomes more challenging, especially when considering what the report refers to as the “two fundamental realities” that need to be kept in mind. The first is that about half of all American adults — 117 million individuals — have one or more preventable, chronic diseases, and that about two-thirds of U.S. adults — nearly 155 million individuals — are overweight or obese.
No question about it, those are daunting numbers.
The report points out that these unhealthy conditions have been “highly prevalent” for more than 20 years. Also, according to the report, eating unhealthy foods and consuming too many calories, coupled with too little physical activity, directly contributes to these preventable health problems.
The second “fundamental reality” guiding the committee is that people can improve their health by making changes in their lives, among them eating healthier foods and getting more physical exercise.
In other words, for the most part, we, the consumers, are in the driver’s seat, and the dietary guidelines are there to serve as a road map. It’s all about helping to prevent a culinary crash that could ruin our health — or kill us.
And, yes, food safety is part of this, especially when considering the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which, like the report, takes a preventive approach to safeguarding people’s health.
As for the role consumers play in food safety, a section of the report states that individual behaviors, along with sound government policies and responsible private-sector practices, are needed to reduce foodborne illnesses.
A quick background
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee was jointly established by the secretaries of the US. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The committee was asked to examine the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, to see if there is new scientific evidence that can be used in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.
The primary focus of these ongoing reports is to develop food-based recommendations for Americans 2 years old and older. Instead of being mere “dust collectors” to be put on a shelf and forgotten, the reports are used to help develop federal nutrition policy and a variety of programs, among them education, outreach, and food-assistance programs throughout the nation, including food stamps.
What we already know, or at least believe
For the most part, the evidence the committee examined reveals what many people already know, or at least believe to be true: A healthy diet is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, poultry, legumes and nuts; lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains (such as those used in cookies, snack crackers, cakes, and most breads).
But the report also shows “moderate to strong evidence” that higher intake of red and processed meats was identified as detrimental compared to lower intake, as is the case for higher consumption of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, as well as refined grains.
That’s where some of the nation’s favorite foods — burgers, pizza, tacos, sandwiches, mixed dishes, desserts and sugar-sweetened beverages, all of which are mentioned in the report — come into the picture.
The report suggests that the composition of many of these food items could be improved in ways to increase consumption of vegetables, whole grains and other under-consumed food groups as well as to lower intake of sodium, saturated fat, added sugar, and refined grains.
The report also noted that no matter where people are buying their food — whether in supermarkets, convenience stores, schools, or at the workplace — overall, the needs of a healthy diet for the U.S. population do not meet recommendations for vegetables, fruit, dairy or whole grains and exceed recommended amounts of sodium, saturated fat, refined grains, solid fats and added sugars.
Reading between the lines: The typical American diet is fraught with health risks.
The report includes some proposed changes to the current Dietary Guidelines. For example, the committee recommends lifting previous restrictions on how much cholesterol people should eat (previously 300 milligrams — or about an egg-and-a-half per day). It follows up by stating there’s no clear connection between the amount of cholesterol people eat and their blood cholesterol levels. Going one step forward, it states that saturated fats are to blame for high cholesterol levels.
As for coffee, feel free to drink 3 to 5 cups of coffee a day, since that amount isn’t linked to any long-term health risks. In contrast, according to the report, coffee consumption has actually been associated with decreased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Feel like a drink? While the report agreed with previous Dietary Guidelines that, when consumed by adults in moderation, alcoholic beverages can be part of a healthy diet, it also includes a warning for women. They should be aware that there’s a moderate increase in risk for breast cancer, even when alcohol is consumed in moderation.
What about fish? According to information the committee reviewed, farm-raised seafood has as much or more healthy Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA per serving as wild-caught salmon. Also, according to the report, neither the risks of mercury or organic pollutants outweigh the health benefits of eating seafood.
A call for ‘preventive nutrition’ services
While individuals can take meaningful steps to improve their health through diet, the report calls for government and public-health entities to include preventive nutrition services — which, the reports notes, “are largely unavailable in the U.S. health system.” There’s also a need, according to the report, to “systematically address” nutrition-related health problems, including overweight and obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other health outcomes.
In other words, how many doctors and health-care providers actually discuss the type of foods their patients are eating and, if necessary, provide information about which foods would be healthier?
Food safety an important player
With fruits and vegetables in the report’s “health spotlight,” questions about food safety are sure to arise, especially since a lot of produce is eaten raw. Then, too, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working on coming up with a list of “high-risk” foods. Already named as high-risk foods by the agency are leafy greens (raw spinach and leaf lettuce) and tomatoes — both of which have been implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks and recalls.
Generally, produce that is eaten raw is more prone to being contaminated with foodborne pathogens than produce that’s cooked simply because high cooking temperatures do a good job of zapping pathogens.
Just recently, whole apples from a California packing company, and, several years ago, cantaloupes from a Colorado farm, were implicated in major foodborne illness outbreaks and recalls. Both came as a surprise to consumers and public health officials alike. In the case of apples, for example, there had never before been an outbreak connected to whole apples.
Referring to foodborne illness outbreaks involving produce, Trevor Suslow, food-safety guru at the University of California-Davis, told Food Safety News in an email that there’s “a notion,” which has been around since the mid-1990s, that at least one reason for the uptick in foodborne illnesses and outbreaks connected to fresh produce in this country is that people are eating more of it.
He points to some reasons for this: year-round availability of most produce, greater foodservice and consumer convenience in the fresh categories, and strong science-based messages extolling the many long-term health benefits of a diet that includes diverse fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
Consumer confidence is an important part of the equation, and Suslow said that the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), along with industry-driven initiatives around food safety, are providing, and sustaining, a high level of consumer confidence in the safety of produce in the marketplace.
He’s confident that FSMA’s provisions and compliance requirements in the rule-making process will establish enforceable standards, which will include fresh, minimally processed (fresh-cut), frozen, dehydrated, and traditionally processed produce.
Suslow also said that “with its fundamental focus on prevention,” FSMA is expected to “greatly broaden awareness” of the importance of food-safety principles at all scales of production and handling. This, in turn, supports the public-health objectives of increased consumption of fresh and quick-frozen produce in particular.
“The industry is clearly on board with the proposed Dietary Guidelines and recognizes the importance of designing and implementing a systems approach to food safety,” he said.
FSMA’s final rule on produce safety, which includes standards for the growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of produce for human consumption is, by court order, due in October. Compliance dates will vary by size of operation and specific provisions dealing with topics such as agricultural water use.
Warren Morgan, an Eastern Washington orchardist and owner of Double Diamond, which annually packs about 2 million boxes of apples, cherries and apricots, told Food Safety News in an email that he’s glad the proposed Dietary Guidelines encourage eating fresh fruit and believes that it is a healthy choice for kids and their parents.
Pointing out that the industry invests millions of dollars in research, some of which is directed toward the interaction between foodborne pathogens and tree fruits, Morgan said he firmly believes in the importance of following strict food-safety practices. Part of that is adopting a company-wide culture around food safety, which includes training employees and keeping extensive records that document just what’s being done, where and when, all along the line.
“The Washington state tree fruit industry has an obligation to deliver safe and nutritious apples, pears and cherries to consumers,” he said.
Even so, Morgan said that as farming operations become larger, there’s more risk of cross-contamination, which is why following food-safety practices becomes increasingly important.
In an article in Good Fruit Grower, he explained the nitty-gritty realities of the challenge: “Pathogens are doing their best to make it into our buildings, and our job is to beat them back as best we can.”
Red meat battle flares up again
The report’s section on “Food Sustainability and Safety” begins by stating that, “Access to sufficient, nutritious, and safe food is an essential element of food security for the U.S. population.”
But, when it goes on from there to talk about the environment, that’s entering territory it has no business being in, say some livestock industry and conservative think-tank representatives.
Here’s some of that section that’s got them “seeing red”: “The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.”
From there, it adds some fuel to the fire by stating that current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, compared to three other diet patterns, the Healthy U.S.-style Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern, and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern. This, according to the report, is because Americans eat more animal-based foods and fewer plant-based foods than is the case in the other diet patterns.
However, the report also notes that “no food groups need to be eliminated completely to improve sustainability outcomes over the current status.”
But that’s not flying with those who see “climate-change activists” at work.
Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, stated in a press release that the report was “heavily influenced by activists’ plans to change the nation’s Dietary Guidelines to promote foods that they believe have ‘a smaller carbon footprint.’”
That’s in contrast, he said, to the past intent of Congress when the dietary guidelines were intended exclusively to “promote health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases.”
Stier also warned that if the Obama administration allows this to become part of the official Dietary Guidelines to be released later this year, “it will cost the public money and not make us any healthier.”
We’re talking about red meat for the most part, which has provoked the ire of meat-industry folks. Mary Soukup, the editor of Drovers/CattleNetwork, stated in a commentary that the advisory report decided not only to recommend lower meat consumption but also “to veer off course and venture into the realm of environmental sustainability.”
According to Soukup, both the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the North American Meat Institute say that the committee is contradicting itself by first recommending a health pattern lower in red and processed meat, and second, by endorsing the Mediterranean diet, which has higher red meat levels than currently consumed in the U.S.
Soukup’s commentary also points out that in the past 30 years, thanks to advancements in production, genetics and processing, beef has 34 percent less total fat and 17 percent less saturated fat. In addition, beef is recognized as an excellent source of six nutrients: protein, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, niacin and selenium, as well as a good source of four nutrients: phosphorous, choline, iron and riboflavin.
Another complaint she has relates to the composition of the 14-person Dietary Guidelines committee, which she says is made up of “a plethora of human health and wellness experts,” but not one agronomist, animal scientist, economist or food producer of any type.
On the other side of the fence, Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that the recommendation to eat less red and processed meat deserves to be in the final Dietary Guidelines for Americans “and not excised at the behest of the meat industry.”
The report has been published in the Federal Register and will be open for public comment until April 8. After the comment period closes, USDA and HHS will review it and the public comments and then publish the 8th edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which will likely happen this fall.