Thursday, 20 October 2016

An obscure California court case reveals how food companies — not scientists — tell us what's healthy

healthy eating

Every five years, the US government tries to distill and articulate what's healthy and what isn't. These "Dietary Guidelines" are a big deal: They're meant to help guide America's eating choices, steering people toward more nutritious foods and away from potentially harmful ones.

Not surprisingly, the Dietary Guidelines are often controversial.

A draft of the latest Guidelines released earlier this year attracted the ire of a nonprofit group that advocates a vegan diet called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine because it did not include specific limits on how much cholesterol Americans should consume (most Americans get their dietary cholesterol from eggs).

While the lawsuit's impact on the Dietary Guidelines remains unclear, an obscure October ruling on the case encapsulates how the food industry decides what America gets told is healthy, regardless of the consensus reached by the latest scientific research.

"The food industry has figured this out," Dr. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and the author of the book "Food Politics," told Business Insider. "They look at industries like Big Tobacco and they see that those industries got to exert undue influence on policy, and they say, 'Well, we can get away with it.' And they have gotten away with it for a long time."

Cholesterol and Big Egg

In 2014, while the USDA was still writing its Guidelines, a draft of the report caught the eye of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The draft Guidelines did not include specific limits on how much cholesterol — a fatty substance found in eggs, shellfish, and meat — people should eat every day.

"You had one thing in there that made zero sense — this part about cholesterol not being a problem," Dr. Neal Barnard, who is the president of the Physicians Committee and an adjunct associate professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine, told Business Insider.

eggsBarnard and his Committee said they felt the strict advice to limit cholesterol had been a critical and recurring part of the Guidelines. The fact that they were suddenly left out of this new draft, the Committee claimed, revealed how much sway members of the food industry (in this case, those with ties to egg companies) held over food policy.

"You can't say there should be no industry input, but this was just way too much," said Barnard. "It was beyond the pale."

Barnard's surprise wasn't unfounded. For at least two decades, the USDA's Dietary Guidelines had included a very specific recommendation on cholesterol, in most cases clearly stating that Americans should eat no more than 300 milligrams per day of cholesterol — less than the amount you'd get from two eggs. (It's important to note here that most of the science on cholesterol sides against Barnard and in support of the updated guidelines, though the topic remains controversial. Years of research, most of which was done in the 1990s, suggested that dietary cholesterol from foods like eggs does not have as much of an impact on blood cholesterol as we once thought. In other words, as my colleague Kevin Loria has written previously, most people shouldn't worry about eating a couple of eggs now and then.)

Outraged by the draft's omissions, Barnard's organization sued the USDA. In their complaint, the Physicians' Committee claimed that a USDA advisory group who'd helped create the Guidelines had been "inappropriately influenced" by members of the egg industry. In other words, they alleged the cholesterol limitations had been removed to please Big Egg. Importantly, however, the Committee had its own interests in mind as well. The nonprofit promotes animal welfare and, as such, heavily advocates a vegan or vegetarian diet.

A few months later, the USDA released its final Guidelines. To the chagrin of Barnard and his Committee, the specific 300-milligram cholesterol limit had not been added back in. What had been included, however, was a slightly different recommendation on cholesterol consumption. Instead of the 300-mg limit, the Guidelines advised people to "eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible."

This was something of a small victory for Barnard and his Committee. "We were pleased. It wasn't perfect, but at least it was something," said Barnard.

But the case didn't end there.

'Inappropriate influence'

The Physicians Committee lawsuit eventually made its way to a federal judge in California, where the court was tasked with determining whether members of the egg industry had "inappropriately influenced" the USDA, as the Physicians Committee had claimed it had.

On Wednesday, Oct. 12, the case was dismissed — to little-to-no public fanfare and virtually zero press — on the grounds that no working definition for the phrase "inappropriate influence" exists within the particular federal act (the Federal Advisory Committee Act), at issue in the case. In her court order, US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler wrote, "The court holds that there is no meaningful standard for deciding whether certain scientists exercised, or whether the USDA and HHS sufficiently guarded against, inappropriate influence in the Dietary Guidelines." (The American Egg Board and the USDA did not respond to a request for comment.)

Fast Food Sugar 8

This highlights a critical issue in US food policy: Trade and industry groups have been free to shape nationwide health policy, with no clear laws governing against or even defining what might count as "inappropriate influence."

"Essentially it gives license to lobbyists, to people on advisory committees, to people who have very strong financial ties to products that are being considered. It leaves it completely open," said Nestle.

The egg industry isn't the only one who this might apply to, however.

"This kind of corporate influence is widespread: it occurs via all kinds of industries sponsoring research and also directly lobbying federal agencies and Congress. There are many boards like the Egg Board for various food industries and also many companies doing this directly," Nina Teicholz, an investigative journalist and the author of the book "The Big Fat Surprise," which explores why some high-fat foods belong in a healthy diet, told Business Insider.

Just last month, a searing report in The New York Times revealed that an American trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of today's average American yearly income to publish a review of heart health studies that made sugar look less unhealthy than it really is — and to paint fat as the villain instead. In the months before the Food and Drug Administration released its 2015 guidelines recommending that Americans limit their sugar consumption to 50 grams a day — a recommendation that's in line with dozens of studies over the past decade on sugar, heart health, and obesity — the American Beverage Association, the soda industry's main lobby group, invested millions of dollars fighting laws to tax and label sugary beverages.

"The court has seen no definition of special interest," Judge Beeler wrote, in the October 12 Physicians' Committee dismissal. "Perhaps more problematic, or in any case more pivotal here, the court has seen no law describing when a participant may be held to have inappropriately influenced an advisory committee."

The end result of all this ends up on our plates, in our grocery stores, and in our school lunches. We're told butter is bad and sales of margarine skyrocket. Fat is villainized and sugary, low-fat "diet" products fill the shelves of our health food isles. 

For the food industry, it's an endless cycle of victory and defeat. For the American consumer, it's simply defeat.

NEXT UP: The USDA just released a massive new report on what's actually healthy

SEE ALSO: The government just proposed a sea change to American diets, and it could send an entire industry reeling

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