photo by Flickr user Alpha, Creative Commons
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Red meat is still on the menu, say U.S. guideline recommendations.
photo by Flickr user Alpha, Creative Commons

Beef: It’s (Probably) Still What’s for Dinner

When the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released its long-awaited and unavoidably controversial recommendations on how our country should eat yesterday, it answered one of the big questions with a yes:  The panel will continue to endorse eating red meat as part of a healthy diet.

As expected after the public months-long debate, even the victor couldn’t claim total victory. The committee still recommended lowered intake of lean red meats, but put in a footnote that a healthy diet can include lean red meats. “Nutrient dense lean meat is a headline, not a footnote,” wrote North American Meat Institute President Barry Carpenter in a press release. NAMI advocated for red meat to at least be treated equally with poultry and pork, rather than singled out for what the committee determined is a more troubling nutritional (and perhaps environmental; more on that in a moment) profile.

Notaby, the DGAC did not write that processed meats can be part of a healthy diet in that footnote. Processed meats are often high in salt, fat, and sugar, three ingredients that hook us in, biologically-speaking.

NAMI claims that adherents to the Mediterranean diet eat “twice as many processed meats as others.” But I’m guessing that is more salami than Spam, and the satisfaction levels of those two meats are dramatically different, as anyone who has eaten an ounce of Milano salami for dinner can tell you.

While yesterday’s draft may not change the way you eat today, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are vitally important. Revised every five years, the DGAs are the official document from which the executive branch speaks with one voice about nutrition. (Otherwise, as I have written here before, government policy would have all the cohesion of Cosmopolitan magazine, recommending all carbs one day, the grapefruit diet the next.) The DGAs are extraordinarily important, as they dictate government spending on food from school lunches to SNAP (a.k.a. food stamps) benefits. Additionally, your doctor’s recommendations and what your kid learns at school (based on is likely based on the DGAs.

But I led a PBS NewsHour Twitter Chat on the guidelines last month and one thing was clear: People get touchy about being told what to eat.

We will have to wait until the end of the year to see if the government actually adopts the DGAC’s recommendations, which the agencies would have to do for the recommendations to become actual enforceable guidelines. Get ready for an epic months-long battle.

The battle goes far beyond red meat, and the DGAC has made “mistakes” before. In the recommendations released yesterday, the DGAC also reversed its previous limits on cholesterol, writing that it is “not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption” anymore. That’s the thing about scientific information: It changes. Other news: steer clear of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. Caffeine and alcohol are OK in moderation.

And get ready for a fight over whether the government can include environmental concerns as part of its consideration of dietary health. Congress sent a shot across the bow, warning of its disapproval of the DGAC’s potential recommendations back in December when it became aware that the committee was considering sustainability, i.e.  healthy for planet = healthy for people. But Congress (and at that time, a majority Democratic Senate, which has now switched to majority Republican) included language in the omnibus spending bill that the Department Secretaries could not consider anything but pure health value when making their final dietary recommendations toward the end of the year.

One of the most fun food-policy spectator sports will be watching debate over the DGAC’s recommendations for “consumer-friendly information that facilitates understanding of the environmental impact of different foods in food and menu labeling initiatives’ labeling and climate change in one debate? Cowabunga.

What is “environmental impact?” Australia has recently dipped a toe in these waters, but in America, it’s a complex administrative food law issue that would in part depend on interpreting the Constitution. That’s almost always a mess. Not something to be avoided in itself, just something to be aware of.

The Obama administration likely didn’t want to fall on its chef’s knife for the good food movement, even though it wants good food to be a huge part of its legacy. As most presidents learn by the end of their second terms, some progress is better than none.