Environmentalists Say What the Feds Won’t About How to Eat

The Environmental Working Group has published an alternative to the federal dietary guidelines.
(Photo: USDA Food Nutrition Service/Flickr)
Jan 20, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Earlier this month, the Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA together released the 2015 dietary guidelines, and they did not live up to many food and public health advocates’ hopes. Food policy expert Marion Nestle referred to them as “a win for the meat, sugary drink, processed, and junk food industries.” New York Times health columnist Jane E. Brody wrote, “The new guidelines can be confusing, containing what seems like conflicting messages and bowing, in some cases, to industry pressures, especially with regard to meats.”

Many were also disappointed that the recommendations regarding environmental sustainability were dropped from the final guidelines.

To combat the alleged vagueness and omissions highlighted by critics, the Environmental Working Group created its own dietary guidelines, released Wednesday, which take both public health and the environment into account. The EWG notes that among other slights, the federal guidelines don’t properly guide people away from eating red or processed meats or fish that’s high in mercury, and they bury advice to avoid sugary beverages.

“When the guidelines came out, it definitely felt like they were dancing around the advice,” EWG report coauthor Emily Cassidy said. Rather than telling people to eat less meat outright, critics of the guidelines say the authors instead recommended reduced consumption of “saturated fats,” which many saw as bowing to industry pressure. As Cassidy said, “We want people to be clear when they’re giving consumers advice about what they should eat more or less of.”

As such, much of the advice in the EWG guidelines feels very commonsense: Eat more fruits and vegetables, cut down on certain meats and fish, and avoid processed foods or those high in sugar or salt. Yet they add a bit of (branded) nuance too, recommending, for example, that those who can afford to avoid conventional produce on EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list, which details foods that retain the most pesticides. “We also point people toward conventional produce that tend not to have many pesticides on them,” said Cassidy.

And as EWG sees it, pesticide residue isn’t the only aspect of food production worthy of the “dirty” label—and the alternative guidelines reflect that view. “The way we produce our food and what we produce really affects our health,” Cassidy said. “It’s the main cause of water pollution and dirties our air.” If the feds purport that following the dietary guidelines will cut down on diet-related illness, why not include environmental health as well?

“I think sustainability is well within the scope of the dietary guidelines,” Cassidy said. “The EWG’s guidelines really help consumers make more healthy and sustainable dietary choices.”

To read between the lines of the new federal guidelines, the average consumer has to understand the complicated political dances between industry, HHS, and USDA. The EWG believes that people shouldn’t have to study the inner workings of a government agency and the industry it regulates to know what to purchase at the grocery store.

Despite charges that the federal dietary guidelines are confusing to consumers, the authors are clear that the recommendations aren’t meant for the average shopper but rather to inform public policy and or those in the health community. But Cassidy believes that regardless, the recommendations do trickle down to the average consumer. “A lot of consumers ask, ‘What should I eat?’ and turn to those guidelines as a reference,” she said.