Should We Be Following USDA Dietary Guidelines?

Every 5 years since 1980, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The next edition to be released imminently is the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines, which will provide advice on healthy eating – from birth to older adulthood.

Twenty nationally recognized experts serve on the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), an advisory committee to the USDA. Comprised of eminent doctors, registered dieticians, and academics with degrees in public health, their job is to review scientific evidence on topics identified as important and provide a scientific report to the USDA. 

The USDA takes the committee’s review, along with public and agency comments, to finalize their Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

Will there be any significant changes?

Yes. A few new and useful additions to the existing guidelines include: 1) children under the age of 2 years old should have no added sugar in their diets; 2) children should only consume breast milk or unfortified formula for the first 6 months of their life; and 3) allergenic foods (eg. eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, soy products) should be introduced to infants in the first year of life to reduce their risk of developing an allergy later on.

Who makes up the USDA?

The USDA includes The Agriculture Marketing Service, Farm Service Agency, Food and Nutrition Service, and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, to name a few. The USDA’s primary stakeholders are therefore major food producers and manufacturers.

Unfortunately, this is where politics and big business enter the picture.

A USDA document obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine – a non-profit with more than 12,000 doctor members – reveals that a member of the 2020 DGAC was nominated by the United Egg Producers.

According to another Freedom of Information Act document obtained by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, it was found that 13 of the 20 members have ties to food industry groups,including the National Potato Council, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the Trade Association of the Snack Food Industry.

As a result of these conflicts of interest, the guidelines are seen to favor the interests of the food and agriculture industries over the public’s interest in accurate and impartial dietary advice.

So why is an agriculture agency in charge of giving dietary advice? 

Some have called for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to be solely in charge of US Dietary Guidelines. But the idea that HHS is immune from political pressure and conflicts of interest is unrealistic.

At the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Hearing, Dr. Michael Gregor, head of the non-profit, NutritionFacts.Org said, “there has been no change in processed meat consumption in the last 20 years.” Putting it as “an abject failure” of those in the field of public health to warn the public about the increase risk of colorectal cancer due to the consumption of processed meats like sausages, hot dogs, and lunch meats – all known human carcinogens. In fact, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines appeared to accommodate the consumption of processed meat if “sodium and saturated fat were within limits” and completely ignored the known cancer risk, which was first published back in 2007 by the American Institute for Cancer Research. He concluded by saying, 

“We cannot allow the billion-dollar meat industry to continue to subvert the science when so many million lives are at stake.”

For dietary guidelines to be adopted and trusted by the American public, there must be a transparency in the process, guidelines must be evidence-based and free of bias and conflicts of interest to the greatest extent possible.

So, until then, you will not go far wrong by practicing a simple piece of dietary advice provided by author Michael Pollen in his book, “In Defense of Food”, and that is…


By Maryam Salehpour, MD.