October 7, 2012 by waboyd
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) were first published in 1980 to provide science-based nutrition information to the American public in order to maximize healthy dietary choices and thus minimize the occurrence and severity of nutrition-related chronic diseases1. Unfortunately, the prevalence of these diseases has actually risen since the introduction of the DGAs; for example, we have been repeatedly reminded of the rise of obesity across the US in almost all of our nutrition classes.
So, why do so many Americans seem to be making even worse dietary choices now than before the introduction of the DGAs? There is not one simple answer to this question and certainly the DAGs are not the only factor, and maybe not even a primary one. However, as the soaring obesity rates imply, the DGAs are not leading to the improvements for which they were originally developed. In this blog, I will focus on the power of the food industry on the development and implementation of the DGAs, and how this affects the behavior of American food consumers.
There is no doubt – the US food industry is extremely powerful. Many companies have merged into massive corporations made up of hundreds of brands and thousands of products. According to the Food and Beverage Industry, the top 5 food companies with the highest sales of value-added, consumer-ready goods that were processed in U.S. and Canadian facilities in 2012 are: 1) PepsiCo; 2) Tyson Foods; 3) Nestle; 4) Kraft Foods; and 5) Anheuser-Busch InBev2. Combined, these companies sold over $135 billion in food products alone, not including any non-food company earnings. In general, the convenience foods and beverages sold by these companies are highly processed, energy-dense and nutrient-poor, and high in sugar, fat, and/or salt.
Such massive earnings result in substantial power in the form of lobbying and advertising. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to read Food Politics yet, but apparently this book describes how the food and agricultural industries have influenced the language of the DGAs and other nutrition information provided by government to consumers, making the final products confusing, vague, and ineffective. It does seem difficult to imagine how the USDA is charged with producing the DGAs but also with protecting the food industry’s interests by helping to identify alternative markets for new food products. It seems to me that these two activities are not always compatible, and the average American consumer is at a huge disadvantage compared to the power of the food industry.
Aggressive advertising practices of the food industry put them at the top of the list in terms of ad spending with estimates for 2012 forecasted to be almost $34 billion per year, with approximately $12 billion directly targeting children- including television, print, and internet advertising3. And, guess who the biggest ad spender of them all is? Nestle, the number 3 top earner of the food industry in 2011 and climbing! Among the many food ads that American children may see, less than 5% are for ‘healthy’ food products such as the whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables recommended by the DGAs4.
So, even for those Americans who understand the information described in the DGAs, making healthy dietary choices is not always easy…
1. Rowe S, et al. 2011. Journal of Food Science 76:R29-R37.
4. Kaiser Family Foundation (2007). Food for thought: Television food advertising to children in the United States. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/7618.pdf.