By Andrea Petersen
The federal government on Tuesday issued new dietary guidelines that keep current allowances for sugar and alcohol consumption unchanged, rejecting recommendations by its scientific advisory committee to make significant cuts.
The scientific committee, which was composed of 20 academics and doctors, had recommended cutting the limit for added sugars in the diet to 6% of daily calories from 10% in the current guidelines, citing rising rates of obesity and the link between obesity and health problems like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The committee also recommended lowering the limit for alcoholic beverages for men to one drink per day from two, matching the guidance for women. It pointed to research linking greater alcohol consumption to a higher risk of death.
The new guidelines do include the scientific committee’s recommendation that children under age 2 consume no added sugars at all. This is the first time the guidelines have included recommendations for babies and toddlers. Added sugars are those found in processed foods—in everything from soda to breakfast cereal—as well as honey and sugar itself. They don’t include sugars naturally found in foods like fruit and milk.
The dietary guidelines, which are updated every five years, have a wide impact: They shape school lunch programs, mold state and local health-promotion efforts, and influence what food companies produce.
The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services reviewed the committee’s recommendations, which were released in July, and decided not to include the lower limits because “the new evidence is not substantial enough to support changes to quantitative recommendations for either added sugars or alcohol,” said Brandon Lipps, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the USDA. Mr. Lipps said that the new limits recommended by the scientific committee didn’t meet a “preponderance of the evidence” standard required by law.
Food industry groups had lobbied intensely against the scientific committee’s proposed new limits. When asked if pressure from business groups had played a role in the government’s decision, Mr. Lipps said “to the extent that stakeholders provided input about whether the science was being properly reviewed, we took that into consideration,” and noted that the government received more than 106,000 comments from the public. “We committed to issuing guidelines based on sound science in an open and transparent process. We believe that at the end of the day, that’s what we did,” he said.
The American Beverage Association, which represents drink makers including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, urged the government to keep the 10% added-sugars limit during a public meeting in August. In response to the new guidelines, the organization’s president and chief executive Katherine Lugar said in a statement, “America’s beverage companies appreciate the common sense approach taken by USDA.”
The alcohol industry also lauded the government’s decision, with a spokesman for the Beer Institute praising “maintaining the long-standing definition of moderate alcohol consumption.”
Elizabeth J. Mayer-Davis, who chaired the federal committee’s beverages and added sugars subcommittee, said that she was “disappointed that the dietary guidelines did not adopt the recommendation of 6%” as the limit for added sugars. “I think it is a lost opportunity for a stronger public health message,” said Dr. Mayer-Davis, chair of the department of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Nigel Brockton, vice president of research at the American Institute for Cancer Research, said the government’s move to not reduce the alcohol limit for men “is very disappointing. The evidence for cancer is so overwhelming.” Dr. Brockton said that alcohol consumption increases the risk of several types of cancer—including stomach, liver, colorectal and esophageal cancer—which are more common in men than in women.
Poor diet is linked to rising rates of obesity and chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes. More than 70% of U.S. adults ages 20 and older are overweight or obese, according to 2015-2016 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 42% are obese, according to 2017-2018 CDC data.
Overall, the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 advise people to “follow a healthy dietary pattern” that consists primarily of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meat and poultry and low-fat dairy, as well as seafood, nuts and vegetable oils. They also advise limiting added sugars, saturated fats, sodium and alcoholic drinks and staying within recommended calorie limits.
USDA and HHS are launching a public-awareness campaign about the new guidelines that centers around the tagline “Make every bite count.” “Our goal is to get Americans to make healthy dietary choices every day at every meal,” said Mr. Lipps. The USDA is also launching a new MyPlate.gov website that will include a quiz to show people how closely their own eating habits meet the dietary guidelines as well as tools to get personalized eating recommendations, recipes for healthy meals and tips for eating on a budget.