The perfect nutrition storm. It's what you get when uncertainty in government nutrition recommendations moves into an unstable atmosphere of concerns about an obese and overweight population.

In particular, what's hanging overhead is the government's simultaneous review of its Dietary Guidelines for Americans and its Food Guide Pyramid. Both are due out in 2005 and have never before been reviewed at the same time, much less during an obesity epidemic.

“It is unprecedented,” says Mary Young, executive director of nutrition for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

Indeed. The dietary guidelines and the food guide don't just affect government food policy. Health organizations and health professionals also use them as the basis for their recommendations.

Part of this coordinated review process began last September, when USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) requested comments on the proposed daily food intake patterns and the supporting technical data for the food guide. A summary of those comments, along with the proposed food intake patterns, will be presented to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. (See sidebars “About the Food Guide Pyramid” and “About the Dietary Guidelines.”)

“The entire nutrition community and the food industry is watching and participating in this process closely, including the beef industry,” Young explains.

What happens in the next 18 months, she says, will set the dietary guidelines for the next five years and the food guide for the next five to 10 years. That means the beef industry's involvement in nutrition efforts today is highly critical because recommendations about beef could shift. Specifically, the industry must ensure that consumers, the media, health professionals and health organizations get the right information about beef.

Getting A Fair Shake

So far, the primary voice of the beef industry in this process is NCBA's comments on the food guide reassessment, which were submitted last October. In those comments, NCBA's biggest concern was that the proposed daily food patterns and technical support data may contain incomplete, outdated and inaccurate information on beef products.

“Our concern is that they did not use the leanest data or the most up-to-date data available when they were calculating the meat group equivalents across all the calorie levels,” Young explains.

The data analysis for the food guide had probably already been done when USDA's National Nutrient Database was updated with new checkoff-funded beef data last July.

What's more, NCBA is concerned that lean and fat data was used instead of data on separable lean only, which is what most consumers prefer to eat. That's significant because, in many instances, the differences in fat amount is more than 50%.

“If they didn't use the separable lean only, then that food group is unfairly looking like it is providing more fat than it actually is, which means you get less discretionary fat and potentially fewer servings out of that food group,” Young explains, pointing out how important that implication is for the beef industry.

If the government disregards the most current beef data in this process, the credibility of food guide as a teaching tool would be in question and beef consumption might be unfairly and negatively impacted, Young says.

Other Concerns

Not all the concerns NCBA spelled out in its comments were specific to the beef industry. NCBA also pointed out the disturbing fact that while 80% of adults recognize the food guide as the cornerstone of a healthy diet, less than 1% of the population actually follows it.

“Rather than just recreating new tools and guidelines, the government really needs to put some research dollars into understanding that gap,” Young says. “Without knowing why consumers are not following it, I think we are really missing a step.”

NCBA also emphasized the importance of choosing naturally nutrient-rich foods, like lean beef or dark leafy green vegetables, first. Because of the overweight and obesity epidemic, people need to make sure the calories they consume are loaded with nutrients, Young says.

In addition, NCBA disagreed with one possible change to the food guide — basing overall calorie recommendations and number of servings on people with sedentary lifestyles.

“When it comes right down to it, it is too many calories and not enough activity that is making us fat,” Young says. “We very strongly feel that allowing a guide for a sedentary population pretty much says, ‘We accept this.’”

Instead, she suggests the food guide be based on a somewhat active person and address the need for energy balance.

“It should really be a ‘healthy lifestyle guide’ that teaches people not only what to eat but how to be more physically active,” Young explains.

Another possible change to the food guide is using common household measurements like cups and ounces rather than the ambiguous “serving” term.

“Obviously there is a huge issue right now about what's a serving, what's a portion, what's on the label, what's the pyramid telling me, and what's on my plate,” Young says.

NCBA supports the concept of using household measurements but suggests more research be conducted to see what resonates most effectively with consumers.

Beyond The Process

No doubt, participating in the review process is a key to getting a fair shake in the government's dietary recommendations. Perhaps just as important, however, are the beef industry's ongoing nutrition research efforts that enable it to make an effective argument.

In particular, Young points out that checkoff-funded research helps build the scientific foundation for why beef is important in a healthy diet.

Wade Zimmerman, chair of NCBA's nutrition and health committee, concurs. “The only way that we can legitimize the nutritional value of beef… is putting the sound science forth,” he says.

Research also helps ensure the availability of beef data that reflects what's in the marketplace and how consumers are eating the product.

“If we didn't have this data, we wouldn't be able to make the argument that people are eating leaner beef today,” Young says, noting that beef today is not what it was 30 years ago.

In fact, beef today isn't what it was 11 years ago. Back then only seven cuts of beef met government guidelines for lean — low in fat, low in saturated fat and low in cholesterol. Today, at least 19 cuts of beef now meet those guidelines, and that's because the beef industry has responded to two decades of recommendations calling for such lean products.

“The industry needs to get credit,” Young says, “and it needs to be referenced accordingly.”

Building Beef's Allies

While having the sound science in hand is essential, one voice is not enough, especially in an industry that's often a lightning rod for consumer watchdog groups. That's why NCBA has built relationships with other well-respected organizations that recognize the importance of beef in a healthy diet.

Zimmerman says those organizations, which include the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and the Council for Women's Nutrition Solutions (CWNS), help spread the sound science about beef and its nutrient benefits.

“They are not out there saying, ‘Eat beef, beef, beef, beef,’” Zimmerman explains. “But what their message is and what their science shows is the negative impact of not having beef in the diet.”

The positive message about beef's nutritional value is also being spread through the industry's new print advertising, which compares the nutritional benefits of lean beef and skinless chicken.

“People are surprised to know that lean beef measures up,” Young says.

The Politics At Play

It goes without saying that politics are inherent in this sort of process. No food group wants to take on a lesser role in the government recommendations.

“What they [government recommendations] will be or could be is certainly up in the air right now,” Zimmerman says. “Everybody is fighting, bringing in their research to try to position themselves as positively as they can.”

Any group and anybody — no matter how divergent their agenda — can have a voice in the discussion. And that includes folks who, for whatever reason, don't like beef.

“There's a great effort that would like to see beef either eliminated or greatly reduced in that whole picture, as far as nutritional recommendations and the consumer,” Zimmerman says.

Beef has a lot of momentum right now, he says, but it takes resources to tell beef's nutrition story. The sound science, advertising, and work with strategic allies all come at a high price. And the beef industry isn't the only group spending money.

“The opposition that we face, many of those groups are greatly funded, and that is what we are up against,” Zimmerman says.

In the end, sound science is supposed to drive the process. And that's why Zimmerman and Young are optimistic.

“As long as this process is driven by science,” Young says, “the outcome will be positive for the industry because it will show the importance of beef in a healthy diet.”

For the latest information and public comments on the food guide and dietary guidelines, visit www.cnpp.usda.gov.

Diana Barto is a freelance writer based in Waconia, MN, and a former BEEF senior associate editor.

About the Food Guide Pyramid

Originally released in 1992, the Food Guide Pyramid outlines the government's view of the healthiest way to eat. A simple graphic depiction incorporating most of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the guide is used by dieters and nutritionists, is taught to school children and is posted on many food products.

The government is updating the image to help people eat better and reduce the nation's obesity epidemic. Some health experts complain the current version oversimplifies food groups, stresses bread and pasta at the expense of proteins and unsaturated fats, and relies too heavily on carbohydrates. Others say the serving sizes are too ambiguous.

Last fall, USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion received public comments on the proposed daily food intake patterns and the supporting technical data for the Food Guide Pyramid. Proposed revisions to the graphic itself, which may not be in pyramid form, likely will be posted for public comment sometime this year, as the final image is due out in early 2005.

About the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans are to:

  • aim for a healthy weight;

  • be physically active each day;

  • let the Pyramid guide your food choices;

  • choose a variety of grains daily, especially whole grains;

  • choose a variety of fruits and vegetables daily;

  • keep food safe to eat;

  • choose a diet that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and moderate in total fat;

  • choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars;

  • choose and prepare foods with less salt; and

  • if you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation.

These 10 principles provide the basis for federal nutrition policy and nutrition education activities and provide advice for Americans ages two years and older about food choices that promote health and prevent disease.

The National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990 mandates that USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) jointly publish a report on the guidelines every five years.

USDA and HHS have put together an advisory committee of 13 health professionals to review and revise the guidelines, if warranted. Among the recent scientific data the committee is examining are the new Dietary Reference Intakes by the Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization report on diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases.

The sixth edition of the guidelines is due in early 2005.