The Food Industry and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines: Investigating Nutrition’s Most Powerful Players

Of the 14-member committee largely responsible for creating the U.S. dietary guidelines, 10 members have financial ties to the food and agriculture industries.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which is appointed by the Department of Agriculture, reviews nutritional research every five years. The committee’s report is ultimately translated into official nutrition advice, formerly the Food Pyramid and now MyPlate.

These are the guidelines that dictate food labeling and the contents of lunches for millions of schoolchildren. They also decide things like how much fat or sugar the government thinks it’s safe to eat.

With nearly three quarters of the DGAC collecting grants from industry interests, the potential for bias is real. And the lack of transparency inherent to the system means that the committee’s conflicts are kept largely under wraps.

Financial disclosures, though required by most prominent scientific journals, are not part of the dietary guidelines advisory report. An independent review of committee members’ published work over the past decade reveals ties to big players in meat, dairy and processed foods.

For example, University of Texas professor Steven Abrams serves on the advisory board of the Milk Processor Education Program, an industry group “committed to increasing fluid milk consumption.” Purdue’s Wayne Campbell published three industry-funded studies in 2015, and received funding or provided consulting services for multiple groups, including Kraft Foods and the National Cattleman’s Beef Association.

Committee vice chair Alice Lichtenstein has accepted research funding from the International Life Sciences Institute, which represents the interests of Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey and other junk food giants.

Speaking by phone from her office at Tufts University, she defends the committee’s process, saying there are checks and balances in place to prevent bias. “Personally, I didn’t feel that anyone had a conflict of interest that was trying to impact our report,” she says.

It’s important to note that it’s not uncommon for nutrition researchers to accept funding from industry groups. In the December 2016 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 27 percent of studies received some sort of industry backing.

Most papers include statements like “financial supporters had no role in the design or conduct of the study or in the collection, analysis, or interpretation of the data” along with their disclosures.

Accepting money from the food industry doesn’t necessarily mean that studies are reaching the wrong conclusions. And on the surface, it seems reasonable for DGAC members, who are experts in the field, to draw on their own research — even if only informally — to help identify trends for the nutritional advisory report.

But their financial partnerships with industry may impact which studies they choose to highlight in the final report. A prominent nutrition advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), says more disclosure would reduce the possibility of biased decision-making within the committee.

“We think the process should be more transparent,” says Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion policy at CSPI. This involves “knowing what funding people get and deciding whether or not that funding has affected research.”

His criticism is noteworthy considering the CSPI generally endorses the U.S. dietary guidelines, with just a few small departures.

Marion Nestle is a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at NYU and author of Food Politics. She says DGAC members declare conflicts of interests up front, but can receive waivers to participate anyway because the USDA considers them Special Government Employees.

According to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, this means they’re exempt from “a criminal conflict of interest statute” that prevents government employees from holding financial interests relating to their government role.

Six months after the DGAC released its 2015 report, the British Medical Journal published a critical review written by journalist Nina Teicholz. She alleges that the committee failed to consider several rigorous studies, and in particular downplayed evidence that saturated fat may not be as closely linked to cardiovascular mortality as scientists once believed.

Teicholz goes on to say that the committee is reluctant to “depart from existing dietary recommendations.” She thinks financial ties are behind this bias, saying that “many experts, institutions and industries have an interest in keeping the status quo advice,” presumably because changing it might threaten industry stability.

Her critique was met with significant backlash, including a call for the article’s retraction by a group of scientists affiliated with the DGAC.

It also resulted in an effort to increase transparency: the BMJ requested financial disclosure statements from each of the committee members. But they only asked committee members to report conflicts directly related to the BMJ, and the disclosures weren’t released to the public.

It’s impossible to know how much bias — if any — influenced the DGAC’s recommendations. But for a report with such far-reaching effects, these post-hoc internal disclosures still fall short of the transparency that’s now standard in the scientific community.