Released this Jan. 7, the long awaited 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), issued by USDA and the Dept. of Health and Human Services (DHHS), provide recommendations on how to achieve a healthy diet. While it's hoped they influence the diets of millions of Americans, they most definitely affect foods selected for the school lunch program and various government sponsored food assistance programs.
Based in part (but not entirely) on recommendations from the 15-member 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the latest edition of the DGAs claim about half of all adults in this country − 117 million people − have one or more preventable, chronic diseases, many of which are related to poor-quality eating patterns and physical inactivity. These rates continue to escalate.
In one example, the estimated cost of diagnosed diabetes was $245 billion in 2012, according to the report message from USDA secretary Tom Vilsack and DHHS secretary Sylvia Burwell.
Americans' dietary intake of vegetables, fruit, grains, dairy, protein and healthy oils are generally less than the recommendations, while the intake of sugars, saturated fats and sodium are far greater. There are also some important inclusions and exclusions in the 2015 DGAs, although not too many shakeups from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. The DGAs are updated every five years.
The 2015 guidelines recommend:
- Limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent of calories and replace it with unsaturated fat (olive oil) and avoid trans-fat − the same recommendations from 2010. To stay within this 10 percent limit, consumers should choose polyunsaturated (safflower, grapeseed and flaxseed oils).
- Limit added sugars to 10 percent − this is new. The 2010 DGAs advised reducing added sugars, but the 2015 version specifically limits them to 10 percent a day, or 10 percent of daily energy intake. For a 2,000 calorie diet, this means cutting back to roughly one 16-oz. bottle of soda.
- Caffeine is OK. While offering no real nutrition value, experts acknowledge caffeine's widespread use and recommend a daily upper limit of 400mg. One standard 8-oz. cup of coffee contains anywhere from 95 to 200mg of caffeine.
- Limit sodium (especially salt) to less than 2,300mg of sodium per day – that's no change from 2010. Consumption below this level is advised for those younger than 14 and for people who have pre-hypertension or hypertension. The DGAs ask manufacturers to reduce sodium in their products and ask consumers to replace salt with herbs and spices to help control blood pressure.
- More fiber is again encouraged, which should fuel grain-based food developments incorporating whole grains, pulses, fruit inclusions and whole-grain flour. The new rulings advise making at last half of grain intake whole grains, and list fiber as "a nutrient of public health concern," because we're not getting enough of it. The guidelines also emphasize calcium, potassium, dietary fiber and vitamin D as being "critical nutrients for health." Low intakes are directly linked with health problems.
- Oils are enjoying a renaissance. Where earlier DGA reports categorized them as "discretionary," oils high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (rather than solid fats) "may be used in food preparation where possible." This could bolster whole foods like nuts, seeds and avocados and products (spreads, salad dressings, dips) that use "healthy" oils such as olive oil and tropical oils.
- Eat a variety of fruit and vegetables and more of them, a recurrent federal dietary standard that still ranks front-and-center in the new guidelines. While consumers are eating more fruit as a better-for-you snack, they're not eating as many vegetables as they should.
Also of note: Chicken is now grouped with meats and limited (depending on calories advised) along with lean beef. Eat plenty of fish as long as it's low in methyl mercury. Limit processed meats to no more than 10 percent of a day's calories and make sure they have no more than 1,500mg of sodium.
What's not included
- Dietary cholesterol − The longstanding limits here were dropped. The new DGAs no longer consider dietary cholesterol something to limit to prevent cardiovascular disease. The latest science points more to the intake of saturated fat as having a significantly larger impact on blood cholesterol levels. Yet the document leaves a lot of room for interpretation, as it confusingly adds "this change does not suggest dietary cholesterol is no longer important to consider when building healthy eating patterns, and individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible while consuming a healthy eating pattern."
- Artificial sweeteners – Judging by discussion at the advisory committee hearings and a spike in consumer concern last year, there was some speculation aspartame would be called out in some way; instead the guidelines reports note "aspartame in amounts commonly consumed is safe."
- Environmental/sustainability considerations – Some studies show meat and dairy animal agriculture is a climate change factor. The DGA advisory committee's report recommended this consideration as a further motivation for a plant-based diet, but the federal departments felt environmental concerns should not be a part of dietary advice.
What processors are saying
Processors have much to say about the updates. "We are pleased to see the recommendations on added sugar, sodium and the benefits of whole grains," says Anthony Guerrieri, director of external affairs at Mars Chocolate North America, McLean, Va. However, "We were disappointed that the report did not reflect our recommendations to include the oral health benefits of chewing sugar-free gum after meals, which, based on 40 years of scientific research, helps to reduce the risk of cavities."
The DGAs' specific recommendation to "reduce sodium intake [by] flavoring foods with herbs and spices instead of salt" delighted the folks at McCormick & Co. President/CEO Lawrence Kurzius used that as one of his pitches to financial analysts in February.
Likewise, General Mills' portfolio of grain- and vegetable-based foods complements the guidelines – although the company remains busy making their products even better. "By reducing sodium, trans fat and sugar across our portfolio and making it easier for consumers to increase whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits and vegetables, General Mills delivers nourishing products people love that can help them meet the Dietary Guidelines," says Bridget Christenson, external communications manager.
Nestle USA, Glendale, Calif., is influenced by the DGAs as well as other authorities such as the World Health Organization, says Roz O'Hearn, corporate and brand affairs director. The company's nutrition experts and product specialists closely monitor the latest science and developments in nutrition, health and wellness. "With all of our product reformulations, we will continue to focus on reducing added sugar, saturated fat and sodium and look for ways to offer more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat and fat-free dairy, and a greater variety of protein foods that are nutrient-dense," she says.
Nestlé also "features more nutrients and ingredients with positive health effects in its food and beverages, such as calcium, protein and whole grains," adds Paul Bakus, president of Nestle corporate affairs. Meanwhile, the company continues to eliminate trans fat and reduce saturated fat, added sugars, sodium and excess calories.
Other companies think very little has changed from the 2010 DGA report. As a result, the new guidelines won't have a significant impact on R&D efforts at Hormel Foods', according to Kevin Myers, senior vice president of research and development.
"We always review recipes and ingredient statements while still delivering great-tasting items that consumers expect; however, this is not due to the new guidelines," he says. "More consumers are searching for products made with simple ingredients they're familiar with, and we continue to listen to our consumers. Consumers continue to ask for relevant protein solutions, and the guidelines support the importance of protein and nutrient-dense foods in a healthy diet. The guidelines continue to look at ways to reduce consumption of ingredients such as sodium and sugar [and] we continue to work on sodium reduction in select products throughout our portfolio, and most of our products are already low in sugar content."
"We particularly support the renewed emphasis on nutrient density to improve the concentration of nutrients per quantity of food," says Thomas Hushen, senior manager of external communications at Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J. "Our teams are working now to understand how to incorporate the new guidelines into our portfolio where appropriate."
An important change in the 2015 report is its recognition of healthy eating patterns and how consumers should shift their diets to align with them. It says these patterns − linking or combining certain foods and beverages regularly over time − are greater than the sum of their parts. Backed by science that shows they can help people achieve and maintain good health and minimize the risk of chronic disease, these healthy eating patterns (along with regular physical activity) can be flexible, should include foods people enjoy and fit within their budget. Three healthy pattern examples are suggested: one at a 2,000-calorie level and two based on personal preference, also at the 2,000-calorie level: a Mediterranean style and a healthy vegetarian pattern.
"We were glad to see the evolution from a focus on individual dietary components (food groups and nutrients) to an overall pattern of eating," notes O'Hearn. She also acknowledges the guidelines' mention of portion sizes. "Our portion tools and messaging across brands will continue to be more prominent as they help bridge the gap between dietary recommendations and more user-friendly information to promote thoughtful portion sizes."
The guidelines' emphases on protein and plant-based foods and the new acknowledgement that some fats are healthy should buoy all nuts. "Nuts play a big role in the new guidelines at many levels," says Martin Pohl, co-owner of Hughson Nut Inc. "It was not so long ago nuts were considered alongside potato chips and candy bars as high-calorie and fatty foods to limit in your diet. New research on their nutritional value has resulted in nuts in being a recommend choice for fiber and protein and as a replacement for high fat, sugar, sodium and gluten products."
As a result, he adds, "Demand for nuts continues to grow as consumers seek to follow recommended diet plans."
Egg people are happy with the disassociation of dietary cholesterol with serum cholesterol. Formulators can rely on egg ingredients to create food products within the three recommended healthy eating patterns: U.S.-style, Mediterranean or vegetarian. Eggs are also a good source of vitamin D, which was identified by the 2015 DGAs as "a nutrient of concern" for under-consumption.
War on sugar, sodium
With added sugars capped at 200 calories, an "added sugars" notation will likely appear on the FDA's updated nutrition facts panel, whenever it's finalized. For beverages, the latest thinking is to drink more water and fewer sweet sodas. Nestle is lowering added sugars in certain beverages and recently updated its policy on sugars.
"Since 2000, Nesquik’s most popular chocolate powder saw a 35-percent cut in added sugar," Bakus adds. "With the 2015 reformulation, every Nesquik flavor has 10.6 grams of added sugar."
Hormel's Muscle Milk is an example of its low-sugar beverages. "It's high in protein, very low in sugar and conforms to the new 'added' sugar labeling," Myers notes.
General Mills has been reducing sugar and sodium across product lines. Currently, Big G cereals aimed at children have 10g of sugar or less per serving. Sugar in Yoplait Original yogurt was cut last year by 25 percent. "We’re also reducing sodium as part of our longstanding Health Metric, which measures our progress on nutrition and health improvements," says Maha Tahiri, chief health and wellness officer at General Mills. "[In December,] we ... lowered sodium in our U.S. retail products by at least 20 percent across seven of 10 product categories."
Following the guidelines can be challenging, Tahiri admits. "With all the demands the day can bring, this can be a daunting task," she says. For food companies, the advice parents have given for years still hold true: eat more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products and protein, and cut back on sugar, salt and saturated fats.