More than a decade of research on saturated fat is again ignored: A look at the reality of where we are and how we got here.
By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, January 15, 2021
WASHINGTON, D.C. – “Make every bite count.” That’s the slogan of the new 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), released Tuesday, December 29 by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS).
In the webcast announcement from Washington, the focus was described as helping Americans meet nutritional needs primarily from nutrient-dense ‘forms’ of foods and beverages. However, because of the continued restriction on saturated fat to no more than 10% of calories, some of the most nutrient-dense foods took the biggest hits.
For example, the 2020-25 DGA executive summary describes the Dairy Group as “including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese and/or lactose-free versions, and fortified soy beverages and yogurt.”
At the newly re-launched MyPlate website, exclusions are listed, stating “the Dairy Group does not include foods made from milk that have little calcium and a high fat content, such as cream cheese, sour cream, cream, and butter.”
In fact, the webcast announcement flashed a slide of MyPlate materials showing consumers how to customize favorite meals for so-called ‘nutrient density’. The example was a burrito bowl, before and after applying the DGAs. Two recommended ‘improvements’ were to remove the sour cream and to replace ‘cheese’ with ‘reduced-fat cheese.’
For the first time, the DGAs included recommendations for birth to 2 years of age. The new toddler category is the only age group (up to age 2) where whole milk is recommended.
The 2020-25 DGAs “approve” just three dietary patterns for all stages of lifespan: Heathy U.S., Vegetarian, and Mediterranean. Of the three, two include 3 cups of low-fat or fat-free dairy and one includes 2 to 2.5 cups low-fat and fat-free dairy. Protein recommendations range 2 to 7 ounces. All 3 dietary patterns are heavy on fruits, vegetables and especially grains.
In short, the DGA Committee, USDA and HHS collectively excluded the entire past decade of research on saturated fat. Throughout the DGA process, many in the nutrition science and medical communities asked the federal government to add another dietary pattern choice that is lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein with a less restrictive saturated fat level — especially given the government’s own numbers shared in the Dec. 29 announcement that, today, 60% of adults have one or more diet-related chronic illnesses, 74% of adults are overweight or obese, and 40% of children are overweight or obese.
Ultimately, the 2020-25 DGAs fulfilled what appears to be a predetermined outcome by structuring its specific and limiting questions to set up the research review in a way that builds on previous cycles. This, despite letters signed by over 50 members of Congress, hundreds of doctors, as well as a research review conducted by groups of scientists that included former DGA Committee members — all critical of the DGA process.
As current research points out, saturated fat is not consumed by itself. It is part of a nutrient-dense package that supplies vitamins and minerals the DGA Committee, itself, recognized their approved dietary patterns lack. Full-fat dairy foods and meats have complex fat profiles, including saturated, mono and polyunsaturated fats, CLAs and omegas.
But USDA and HHS chose to ignore the science, and the dairy and beef checkoff and industry organizations ‘applauded.’
National Dairy Council ‘applauds,’ NCBA ‘thrilled’
Both the checkoff-funded National Dairy Council (NDC) and checkoff-funded self-described Beef Board contractor National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA) were quick to respond with public statements.
An NCBA spokesperson was quoted in several mainstream articles saying beef producers are “thrilled with the new guidelines affirming lean beef in a healthy diet.”
NDC stated in the subject line of its news release to media outlets that “dairy organizations applaud affirmation of dairy’s role in new Dietary Guidelines.”
The NDC news release stated: “Daily inclusion of low-fat and fat-free dairy foods is recommended in all three DGA healthy dietary patterns. Following the guidelines is associated with reduced risk of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.”
The dairy checkoff news release also identified nutrient deficiencies that are improved by consuming dairy but failed to mention how fat in whole milk, full-fat cheese and other dairy products improves nutrient absorption.
Checkoff-funded NDC’s news release described the DGAs as “based on a sound body of peer-reviewed research.” The news release further identified the guidelines’ continued saturated fat limits at no more than 10% of calories but did not take the opportunity to mention the excluded peer-reviewed research showing saturated fat, milkfat, whole milk and full-fat dairy foods are beneficial for health, vitamin D and other nutrient absorption, all-cause mortality, satiety, carbohydrate metabolism, type 2 diabetes and neutral to beneficial in terms of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.
They did not take the opportunity to encourage future consideration of the ignored body of research. Even National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) included a fleeting mention of its hopes for future fat flexibility in its own DGA congratulatory news release.
The checkoff-funded NDC news release did reveal its key priority: Sustainability. This topic is not part of the guidelines, but NDC made sustainability a part of their news release about the guidelines, devoting one-fourth of their communication to this point, listing “sustainable food systems” among its “dietary” research priorities, and stating the following:
“While these Guidelines don’t include recommendations for sustainable food systems, the U.S. dairy community has commitments in place to advance environmental sustainability,” the National Dairy Council stated in its DGA-applauding news release. “Earlier (in 2020), the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy announced the 2050 Environmental Stewardship Goals, which include achieving carbon neutrality or better, optimizing water usage and improving water quality.”
International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) also issued news releases praising the inclusion of low-fat and fat-free dairy in the DGAs and upholding the guidelines as ‘science-based.’
According to the Nutrition Coalition, and a panel of scientists producing a parallel report showing the nutrient-dense benefits of unprocessed meat and full fat dairy as well as no increased risk of heart disease or diabetes, the 2020-25 DGAs excluded more than a decade of peer-reviewed saturated fat research right from the outset.
The exclusion of a decade or more of scientific evidence sends a clear message from the federal government — the entrenched bureaucracy — that it does not intend to go back and open the process to true scientific evaluation. In this way, the DGAs dovetail right into ‘sustainable nutrition’ and ‘planetary diets’ gradually diluting animal protein consumption as part of the World Economic Forum’s Great Reset for food transformation — EAT Lancet style.
So, while dairy checkoff is applauding the DGAs, dairy producers are lamenting the way the guidelines rip key products right out of the dairy food group.
Saturated fat and added sugars combined
A less publicized piece of the DGA combines saturated fat and added sugars. In addition to no more than 10% of each, the new DGAs state no more than 15% of any combination of the two.
This detail could impact the way schools, daycares and other institutional feeding settings manage the calorie levels of both below that 10% threshold to comply with USDA oversight of the combined 15%.
These two categories could not be more different. Saturated fat provides flavor plus nutritional function as part of nutrient-dense foods, whereas added sugar provides zero nutritional function, only flavor.
USDA and HHS fail
During the DGA webcast announcement, Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue said: “The new Dietary Guidelines are focused on nutrient dense foods and are based on a robust body of nutritional scientific evidence to make every bite count.”
However, Perdue failed to acknowledge any role for the robust scientific evidence that was completely excluded from consideration in the process, nor did he acknowledge the stacked-against-fat formation of the DGA Committee, especially the subcommittee handling the 2020 dietary fats questions.
Perdue talked about how the guidelines are there to help Americans make healthy choices. He repeatedly used the term “nutrient dense foods” to describe dietary patterns that are notably lacking in nutrient dense foods – so much so that even the DGA Committee admitted in its final live session last summer that the approved dietary patterns leave eaters, especially children and elderly, deficient in key vitamins and minerals.
(Last summer in their final session, members of the DGA Committee said Americans can supplement with vitamin pills, and one noted there are ‘new designer foods’ coming.)
“We are so meticulous and careful about developing the DGAs because we use them to inform food and federal programs,” said Admiral Brett Giroir of HHS during the DGA announcement.
At least Admiral Giroir was honest to remind us that the DGAs are more than ‘guidelines’, the DGAs are, in fact, enforced upon many Americans — especially children, elderly, food insecure families, and military through government oversight of diets at schools, daycares, retirement villages, hospitals, nursing homes, military provisions, and government feeding programs like Women Infants and Children.
“The 2020-25 DGAs put Americans on a path of sustainable independence,” said USDA Food Nutrition Services Deputy Undersecretary Brandon Lipps during the Dec. 29 unveiling.
Lipps was eager to share the new MyPlate website re-launch — complete with a new MyPlate ‘app’ and ‘fun quizzes and challenges.’ He said every American, over their whole lifespan, can now benefit from the DGAs. In addition, the MyPlate ‘app’ will record dietary data for the government to “see how we are doing.”
In the postscript comments of the 2020-25 report, USDA / HHS authorities say they intend to look again at ‘preponderance’ of evidence about stricter sugar and alcohol limits in future DGA cycles but made no mention of looking at ‘preponderance of evidence’ on loosening future saturated fat restrictions.
The ‘preponderance’ threshold was set by Congress in 1990. Then, in 2015, Congress took several steps to beef up the scientific review process for 2020.
During an October 2015 hearing, members of Congress cited CDC data showing the rate of obesity and diabetes in school-aged children had begun to taper down by 9% from 2006 to 2010, but from 2010 to 2014 the rates increased 16%.
2010 was the year Congress passed the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act to tie the most fat-restrictive DGAs to-date more closely to the schools and other government-subsidized feeding.
USDA, under Tom Vilsack as former President Obama’s Ag Secretary at the time promulgated the implementation rules for schools, outright prohibiting whole and 2% milk as well as 1% flavored milk for the first time — even in the a la carte offerings. These ‘Smart Snacks’ rules today govern all beverages available for purchase at schools, stating whole milk cannot be offered anywhere on school grounds from midnight before the start of the school day until 30 minutes after the end of the school day.
In the October 2015 Congressional hearing, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle grilled then Secretaries Tom Vilsack (agriculture) and Sylvia Burwell (HHS) about the Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL) that is housed at USDA, asking why large important studies on saturated fat funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) were left out of the 2015-20 DGA consideration.
That 2015 hearing indicates why we are where we are in 2020 because of how each 5-year cycle is structured to only look at certain questions and to build on previous DGA Committee work. This structure automatically excludes some of the best and most current research. On saturated fat in 2020, the DGA Committee only considered new saturated fat evidence on children (of which very little exists) or what met previous cycle parameters.
This, despite Congress appropriating $1 million in tax dollars in 2016 to fund a review of the DGA process by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. That review was particularly harsh in its findings, and the 2020-25 DGA process ignored the Academy’s recommendations.
Opinion, not fact
During the 2015 Congressional hearing, then Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was asked why 70% of the DGA process did not use studies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“The (DGA) process starts with a series of questions that are formulated and then information is accumulated, and it goes through a process of evaluation,” Vilsack replied.
Answering a charge by then Congressman Dan Benishek, a physician from Michigan who was concerned about the 52% of Americans in 2015 that were diabetic, pre-diabetic and carbohydrate intolerant in regard to the fat restrictions, Vilsack replied:
“The review process goes through a series of mechanisms to try to provide an understanding of what the best science is, what the best available science is and what the least biased science is, and it’s a series of things: the Cochrane Collaboration, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the aging for health care equality, data quality, all part of the Data Quality Act (2001 under Clinton Admin). That’s another parameter that we have to work under, Congress has given us direction under the Data Quality Act as to how this is to be managed.”
Unsatisfied with this answer, members of Congress pressed further in that 2015 hearing, stressing that fat recommendations for children have no scientific basis because all the studies included were on middle aged adults, mainly middle-aged men.
Vilsack admitted that the DGAs are “opinion” not “scientific fact.” He explained to the members of Congress how “preponderance of evidence” works in the DGA process.
“In some circumstances, you have competing studies, which is why it’s important to understand that this is really about well-informed opinion. I wish there were scientific facts. But the reality is stuff changes. The key here is taking a look at the preponderance, the greater weight of the evidence,” said then Sec. Vilsack in 2015. “If you have one study on one side and you have 15 on another side, the evidence may be on this side with the 15 studies. That’s a challenge. That’s why we do this every five years to give an opportunity for that quality study to be further enhanced so that five years from now maybe there are 15 studies on this side and 15 studies on this side. It’s an evolving process.”
What we are seeing again in 2020 is what happens when ‘preponderance’ is affected by structures that limit what research is included to be weighed.
Stay involved and engaged. The grassroots efforts are making inroads, even though it may not appear that way.
For their part, the checkoff and commodity organizations ‘applauding’ the latest guidelines would benefit from drinking more whole milk and eating more full-fat cheese and beef to support brain function and grow a spine.