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By Sara S. Blomquist, SFUSA Food and Farm Policy Steering Committee

Every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) jointly update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). These guidelines are advised by science-based evidence on what to eat and drink to promote health. The 2020-2025 DGA was released in December 2020. The guidelines inform the work of policymakers and health professionals alike, forming the nutritional basis for federal nutrition programs like SNAP and School Meals, as well as disease prevention initiatives. Especially following the trend of poor outcomes for COVID-19 patients diagnosed with diet-related diseases, the guidelines have become even more significant and have therefore faced increased scrutiny. 

The DGA has been adjusted in key ways. For the first time, the guidelines offer different recommendations at different life stages, from infancy to late adulthood. Moreover, guidelines are specified for pregnant and lactating women. Lastly, they recognize that recommendations cannot be one-size-fits-all and assert that recommendations can be adapted to individuals’ personal and cultural circumstances or preferences. Nevertheless, there are many shortcomings that Slow Food USA believes must be acknowledged and addressed.

 

Too much added sugar

After the new guidelines were released in December 2020, USDA and HHS faced backlash regarding their recommendations regarding added sugar consumption, which did not match expert advice. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) suggested reducing the recommended daily sugar intake to less than 6% of one’s daily calorie needs. Nevertheless, the final DGA did not accept these recommendations, maintaining that 10% of one’s daily calorie needs can come from added sugars. This, despite the fact that the American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 6 to 9 teaspoons of added sugar per day (for women and men respectively): the 10% figure is equivalent to about 12 teaspoons. Slow Food USA regards this as a critical issue, particularly due to the impacts this would have on children via federal nutrition programs like the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, both of which are informed by the DGA. 

According to a 2020 study, 92% of schools exceeded the guidelines’ added sugar recommendation at breakfast, and 69% exceeded the recommendation at lunch; millions of students partake of these meals every day. A clear federal stance on the dangers of added sugar for children, in particular, would be instrumental in changing nutritional quality standards. Moreover, the added emphasis would make U.S. food policy far more equitable, given that low-income and BIPOC families are more affected by the quality of school meal programs. Reducing added sugar consumption in school meals continues to be a major goal of SFUSA.

New look at plant-based proteins

The new guidelines also made a variety of additions to potential sources of protein, including beans, peas, and lentils. “Dairy and fortified soy alternatives” were also featured as a category. Moreover, the guidelines included “Nuts, Seeds, Soy Products” as a subgroup of protein products. Listing sources of plant-based protein make these viable, more mainstream options for Americans, where the conversation was once almost entirely around too much poultry, red meat, and processed meats. Indeed, the DGA itself notes that approximately three-quarters of Americans meet or exceed consumption recommendations for eggs, poultry, and meats.

While introducing new protein sources to the American diet, the new guidelines inadequately address Americans’ particularly high consumption of our largely industrialized production of meat, dairy, and eggs, according to Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard University. Moreover, they do little to address the environmental impacts of nutritional recommendations, particularly those that focus on meat consumption. Slow Meat concurs with this assessment and continues to educate consumers about the excessive consumption of industrial, unsustainably, and inhumanely produced, “cheap” meat and the accompanying exploitation of labor and livestock. 

The DGA focuses heavily on soy products and derivatives as a plant-based protein source, including tofu, tempeh, and products made from soy flour, soy protein isolate, and soy concentrate. We must highlight the negative environmental impact of many soy products. The mass production of soy causes extensive deforestation, detriment to family-scale farmers, and displacement of Indigenous peoples. Recently popularized meat alternatives like those produced by Impossible Foods are advertised as environmentally beneficial. However, scientists have expressed concerns over such characterizations. While soy-based products like the Impossible Burger may have a reduced carbon footprint compared to factory-farmed meat, they are much more polluting (about five times more) than traditional plant-based products like bean burgers. 

Highly processed, soy-based products are another manifestation of the industrialization of our food system. Indeed, we believe that closed-loop, pasture-raised livestock production by family-scale producers embodies the message of sustainability much more faithfully than mass-produced, highly processed soy-based products. Yet, products like the Impossible Burger are making their way into public school cafeterias. By incentivizing greater demand for soy products without engaging in policy to make such commodities more sustainable, the DGA could cause adverse consequences. Advocating for more plant-based options and less meat consumption is crucial both for our environment and our health, but not without due reflection on environmental impacts.

 

Supporting more seafood

Slow Fish North America is pleased with the emphasis on increasing domestic seafood consumption. SFUSA and Slow Fish North America celebrate healthy fisheries and habitats, Tribal and community-based fishers, and sustainable aquaculture. We are educating the public on these complex issues to help raise awareness and advocate for public policy that supports sustainable fisheries. According to the 2020-2025 DGA, almost 90 percent of the population does not meet the 8-ounce/week recommendation for seafood consumption. Seafood is an excellent source of protein and essential fatty acids supporting cognitive development, according to the EPA and FDA

Sustainability remains a priority for Slow Food and Slow Fish North America. Currently, up to 90% of seafood consumed in the United States is imported. Surprisingly, a significant proportion (some scientists estimate up to 38%) of these imports are caught in the U.S. and processed overseas before re-import into the U.S., making the industry unnecessarily unsustainable. Moreover, about 50% of the imported seafood is farmed, often in conditions that pose both environmental and health risks. Given the rise in demand for seafood and support of seafood consumption by the DGA, it is essential that the U.S. develop its capacity through sustainable fishing and domestic processing and consumption.

Slow Fish North America believes we have the capacity to support the DGA-recommended seafood intake via sustainable seafood supply chains featuring responsible, small-scale fisheries and bivalve and seaweed aquaculture. We also can achieve these goals by using new technologies to prevent overfishing and wastage. To help perpetuate our sustainable U.S. fisheries, Slow Food USA supports the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) that governs marine fisheries in federal waters. The MSA fosters the long-term biological and economic sustainability of marine fisheries by addressing fish habitat decline, preventing overfishing, rebuilding depleted fish stocks, increasing long-term, seafood-based economic and social benefits, and ensuring a safe and plentiful supply of seafood. 

Nutrition education that would encourage diversified consumption, currently missing in the dietary guidelines, would encourage enjoyment of less popular but abundant seafood like forage fish such as sardines and anchovies. Slow Fish is an avid proponent of this kind of culinary education to promote sustainable consumption. 

DGA, CNR and our kids

Overall, while the DGA has made improvements, like including separate food recommendations for infants and toddlers, creating a comprehensive section on dietary habits during pregnancy and lactation, and acknowledging the need to respect cultural food traditions, the guidelines fall short. This will have effects on millions of Americans. Perhaps most vulnerable are our children, whose school meals and nutritional education are based on these guidelines. 

Typically, Congress reviews and renews every five years the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) that governs child nutrition standards and programs, school and congregate care meals, and WIC standards. Yet, no improvements have been made in over a decade, since the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010. In fact, during the intervening period, the lauded nutritional standards of the HHFKA were undermined by the previous Administration and Congress. In a statement to Congress, American Heart Association president Mitchell S.V. Elkind emphasized the importance of CNR, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions of American children food insecure. Indeed, some experts estimate that the percent of food-insecure households with children in the US doubled from 14% to 28%, with 14 million children facing hunger daily. Elkind also noted that a new CNR could help alleviate the childhood obesity epidemic, increase school meal participation rates, and ensure the wellbeing of all children. 

Slow Food USA is deeply committed to ensuring a new CNR that meets and exceeds DGA recommendations. Though our organization’s School Garden Network works with about 200 school gardens a year to provide students with hands-on gardening experience and access to fresh foods, we know we cannot affect the sorely needed, wide-scale change alone. In a letter to Congress, Slow Food USA Executive Director Anna Mulé noted that “success in achieving our goals cannot result solely by our actions but must be supported by our advocacy for public policies that complement our on-the-ground programs.” 

Policy change, guided by robust dietary guidelines and a correspondingly strong CNR, is now more crucial than ever. Learn more about CNR here and see upcoming crucial CNR legislation here. Find other important bills we support here and your Senators and Representatives, whom we will encourage you to call to voice your support of our “slow” priorities. Slow Food USA continues to advocate for good, clean and fair food for all; we hope you will join us!

Photo by Jonathan Borba via Unsplash