Why Nutrition Policy Lags Behind the Latest Science

By Andrew Shao, Ph.D., vice president, Global Government Affairs, Herbalife
February 28, 2017

A relatively young discipline, the field of nutrition science has rapidly evolved over time. As the basis of nutrition policy, it follows that this evolution would have a substantial impact on food and nutrition policy. Take a look at the history of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is published every five years since 1980 by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Guidelines are an authoritative and highly influential set of recommendations that shape the products food companies manufacture and determine what is served to kids for school lunch, among other areas.

So how have the Guidelines evolved over time? In 1980, the call was for consuming equal amounts of foods from “all four food groups” and emphasis on avoiding too much of certain nutrients (e.g., saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, sodium). By contrast, the 2015 version of the Guidelines, the most current, are focused on overall dietary patterns and less on specific food groups and individual nutrients.

In a recent article published in The Lancet, Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of the Tufts University School of Nutrition Science & Policy, describes that while some progress has been made with U.S. nutrition policy, there is still more that can be done to align policy with the latest science.

Nutrition Over the Last 100 Years
At the beginning of the 20th century, nutrition science was focused on the discovery of essential nutrients and solving the challenges associated with the absence of a given nutrient from the diet and various nutrient deficiency diseases (vitamin D and rickets, thiamin and beriberi, etc.). Nutrition policy was focused on coping with geopolitical events such as the Great Depression and WWII, which created concern for dietary deficiency. Over time, diet and nutrition challenges shifted from concerns about nutrient deficiency to concerns about chronic disease. What followed were decades of research focusing on understanding the function of individual nutrients and the subsequent nutrition policy emphasized which nutrients to consume (e.g., fiber), and which to avoid (e.g., fat) in order to reduce the risk of chronic disease. More recently the scope of nutrition science has widened to move beyond a reductionist focus on single, isolated nutrients to include whole foods and dietary patterns. However, according to Dr. Mozaffarian, policy is still lagging a bit behind the science.

Why the disconnect between current policy and the latest science? The 2015 Dietary Guidelines, according to Dr. Mozaffarian, still “retained some outdated nutrient emphases, such as on limiting total saturated fat (as opposed to guidelines based on the health effects of different food sources) and on prioritizing low-fat dairy (when growing evidence suggests whole-fat dairy might have similar or even greater health benefits).” There have also been delays in updating other nutrition policies.

Steps in the Right Direction
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only recently finalized regulations to update food labels (the same since 1990) to be aligned with current science. In September of 2016, FDA announced the start of a public process to redefine the implied nutrient content claim “healthy” as used on food labels, following a citizen’s petition from a food company. The petition requested the agency to update its regulation so the basis for the use of the term “healthy” on food products is consistent with current nutrition science and recommendations in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Although significant progress has been made, clearly there is more work to do so that nutrition policy and guidelines can keep pace with the established science.