Federal Food Police Against Business and Science
Late last month a host of government agencies including the Federal Trade Commission and the Agriculture Department proposed what the media described as "tough'' but "voluntary" new standards for food companies that advertise to children, designed to pressure the businesses into incorporating much lower amounts of fat, sodium and sugar in foods aimed at a young audience.
Barely a week later the Journal of the American Medical Association published new research which suggested that lowering sodium consumption not only doesn't benefit most people, it may actually increase risk of heart attacks for some. The research was apparently so disturbing to government regulators that some felt the need to step out and criticize the results in the media, something that they rarely do.
If you've been following the latest research on diet in the scientific journals, you would understand why the regulators appeared so defensive. Increasingly, some of the basic assumptions about nutrition that have formed the core of the government's recommendations on what Americans should eat are being questioned by studies which suggest the advice is not merely ineffective but may be counterproductive, contributing among other things to the rise in obesity which the White House decries. Rather than be humbled and made cautious by such research, however, government regulators are simply plowing ahead with a conviction that their ideas about nutrition are correct. Businesses are expected to fall into line, regardless of the implications for their products.
The sodium controversy is a good example of how distorted the arguments have become. The regulators dismissed the new study by suggesting that the results were unusual because the research was flawed. But this was not the first time that a peer-reviewed study had cast doubt on the idea that most of us consume too much sodium. Indeed, more than a decade ago Science Magazine highlighted the controversy with a piece entitled "The (Political) Science of Salt" which noted that, "Three decades of controversy over the putative blood pressure benefits from salt reduction are demonstrating how the demands of good science clash with the pressures of public health policy." More recently, in a February, 2010, article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Michael Alderman, a leading hypertension expert, reviewed the relevant recent research and found a disturbing lack of consistency in the results of a dozen studies on the relationship of salt to our health, which prompted him to observe in the New York Times that any potential population-wide government requirements or recommendations on sodium reduction would amount to a giant uncontrolled experiment with the U.S. population with potentially unintended consequences.
The legacy of the government's dietary guidelines may turn out to be a disturbing list of unintended consequences, including possibly the current obesity epidemic. Since the 1970s, the government's food recommendations have largely been aimed at cutting our consumption of cholesterol and fat, especially saturated fat, to reduce cardiovascular disease and stroke and the conditions that might lead to them, including obesity.
The guidelines, first produced by Sen. George McGovern's Select Subcommittee on Nutrition and Human Needs, were controversial from the start because there was no conclusive evidence at the time that diet was a major contributor to heart disease. But the committee and its scientific advisers proceeded because, they argued, there were no risks in "eating less meat, less fat, less saturated fat...more fruits, vegetables, unsaturated fats and cereal products." Over the years this has become a mantra of the public health establishment about diet, namely that even when the research is inconclusive, what could possibly be the harm in consuming less of things like meat and salt?
With the federal bureaucracy behind them, the guidelines became widely accepted even though subsequent research often questioned them. Two of the government's principal studies on diet and heart disease, published in the 1980s, were intended to offer reassurances, but instead produced results that were inconclusive, at best. The science has only gotten more troubling since then, as researchers have begun to wonder if the obesity epidemic is in some way related to the change in diet prompted by the guidelines. A 2008 article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine argued that Americans have actually followed the government's advice, reducing intake of fat and increasing the proportion of our calories from carbohydrates. The result had been a rise in overall calorie intake, leading the authors to wonder if, "the U.S. dietary guidelines recommending fat restriction might have worsened rather than helped the obesity epidemic." They criticized the government for relying on "weak evidentiary support" in the guidelines.
In April of last year Scientific American reviewed the mounting number of studies contradicting the governments point of view in a piece entitled, "Carbs Against Cardio: More Evidence that Refined Carbohydrates, not Fats, Threaten the Heart." And in October of 2010 the journal Nutrition weighed in with a piece by five researchers entitled "In the Face of Contradictory Evidence: Report of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee," which cited dozens of peer-reviewed studies questioning the science at the foundation of the guidelines.
None of this has deterred the government. The new, 2010 guidelines, for instance, ignored the contrary evidence and recommended significantly lowering salt consumption for everyone over age 50. As in the past, the food regulators seem to have little concern for the unintended consequences of their untested theories. Food companies have argued, for instance, that the sodium goals set by the government are so low that they will make some foods like prepared soups unpalatable to kids. We have no idea what other foods kids will turn to instead.
More than three decades of government involvement in dietary recommendations have led to a situation our grandparents and great-grandparents would have found unthinkable: people turning to government for advice on what to eat. In the interim a whole industry of nutrition writers and diet books has emerged to interpret the Washington diet to us, or contend against it. Not surprisingly, some Americans are confused.
If the federal government unleashed a Pandora's Box of unintended consequences more than three decades ago, it's going to be awfully hard to undo much of what Washington has done. We haven't even begun trying yet.