No Sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines? Why That May Not Really Matter

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In the nutrition and food world, the Dietary Guidelines are the equivalent of our “fashion week." Thus, when it was announced earlier this week that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines won’t include sustainability in their diet recommendations for Americans, it set off a ripple of chatter. (For the first time ever, sustainability was proposed in the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) Report earlier this year).

As one might expect, the meat industry rejoiced at the news while environmental and consumer health groups howled. Walter Willet from the Harvard School of Public Health immediately issued a swift response, which I fully agree with. However,  here are 3 reasons why, in my opinion, losing sustainability in the DGA may not matter all that much for the future of food.

Reason #1: The broader health community is pivoting to plants at a fast pace.

Eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds-and consuming less meat - is almost universally recognized by the larger health community as a foundation of human health. In fact, the totality of the evidence for a plant-centric diet with significantly less meat as the basis is so compelling that it’s the basis of multiple road maps from leading groups, such as Harvard School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America’s 2015 Menus of Change, Annual Report, CIA’s Healthy Kitchens Healthy Lives, and Dr. David Katz’s new True Health Coalition  (which I’m proud to serve on the Council of Directors). And over the summer, the prestigious Lancet called for an entirely new medical discipline, “planetary health," laying out the science and the sense of connecting the health of the person to that of the planet.

Reason #2. Policy and politics no longer reflect the marketplace.

While the Dietary Guidelines do still have influence on federal programs, lobbying in congress is less and less relevant to what’s actually happening in the marketplace. High fructose corn syrup, for example, is perfectly safe from a federal regulatory point of view, but consumers have overwhelmingly shown with their dollars they don’t want it, forcing companies to shift to other sweeteners. Earlier this year, a steady stream of large food companies announced they were dropping dozens of ingredients people simply aren’t buying: Pepsico, Pizza Hut, General Mills and others made global announcements about removing artificial colors and a list of other unpopular ingredients. GMOs are in the midst of this tug of war right now. Many innovative supermarket chains are stepping up their influence as well: one of the most successful is Kroger’s hugely popular Free From 101 program, which essentially curates ingredients that their consumers have told them they don’t want, despite policy and science allowing them onto a label. Given the immense success and profitability of these programs, I won’t be surprised if the meat counter is next.

Reason #3. Livestock is already being forced to improve.

No matter what the Dietary Guidelines say or don’t say, the movement to make meat better is already well underway as influential chefs, foodservice operators, health experts, and leading chains like Chipotle continue to set newer, higher bars that are paced well ahead of Congress. And 2015 has also seen a flurry of public commitments to get antibiotics out of meat (or at least limit them). McDonalds has two such examples. And meat-free protein alternatives are the darling of Silicon Valley investments,  setting the stage to disrupt the ways we think about meat and protein even further, especially among the planet-conscious (and coveted consumer demographic) millennials.

There’s power and there is force. While this recent development in the DGA process could be considered an example of the latter, the momentum of the marketplace, the science, and the consumer is already underway - and is a power to be reckoned with.