Why You Should Never Trust The Government About Nutrition

Recently, a story about Domino’s Pizza got a lot of attention in the media, but for all the wrong reasons.

Here’s what happened.

Domino’s Pizza wasn’t having a good year. Sales were low, profits were down, and, according to the New York Times, Domino’s tied for first in a big national survey of the “Worst Tasting Pizzas In America”.

What to do, what to do?

Well, if you were a big corporation with flagging sales and an unpopular product, what would you do? You’d go the experts.

Which is exactly what Domino’s did.

They went to Dairy Management, Inc, a nonprofit corporation, whose experts basically gave them the following advice: Make the pizzas cheesier!

Dairy Management teamed up with Domino’s to create new pizzas with 40% more cheese and devised (and paid for) a 12 million dollar marketing campaign for the new creation. People loved the stuff, and sales soared, “by double digits”, according to the NY Times.

So what’s the problem?

Well, Dairy Management is actually not a wholly independent consulting firm. It’s part of the US Department of Agriculture. (A small part, admittedly, but still a part.) And its mission is simple: get people to eat more cheese. According to the NY Times, “..the government, through Dairy Management, is engaged in an effort to find ways to get dairy back into Americans’ diets, primarily through cheese”.

So the government- through a corporation that’s part of it’s own USDA- is trying to get you to eat more of the very foods it’s telling you to cut back on.

Now the reason people are all upset about this seems to me beside the point. People are all in an uproar because on the one hand the government is telling us to eat less saturated fat and yet, out of the other side of its collective mouth, is telling us to eat more of it (in the form of cheese).

But I have a somewhat different take on this.

As readers of this blog know, I don’t give a fig about saturated fat. I think it’s been unfairly demonized. I don’t particularly care how much fat a food has- saturated or unsaturated– as long the fat comes from real, whole foods (like eggs, coconut, fish, etc.)

Saturated fat is not the problem.

What I’m concerned about is a much more insidious issue, which is this: the advice we get from the government about what food to eat (or not eat) is completely tied to special interests from the industries that produce that food.

Our government heavily subsidizes the farming of sugar, wheat, corn and soy. Do you really think you’re ever going to see the USDA recommending that we eat less of any of these products?

If you do, I’ve got some nice property alongside the Brooklyn Bridge that I’d like to talk to you about.

The Dairy Industry has managed to lobby behind the scenes to practically criminalize the sale of raw milk. Do you think that’s for health reasons? Or for economic ones?

But I digress.

When the World Health Organization put out a report in 1994 called “Diet Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases” they made a very reasonable and conservative recommendation: keep “added” sugars to 10 percent or less of the diet.

OK with you? Find anything wrong with that? Actually, who would find anything wrong with that?

I’ll give you three guesses and here’s a hint: The Sugar Association.

The sugar industry was completely up in arms about this, wrote to WHO waving all kinds of data and studies showing that this recommendation was completely unwarranted. (Here’s just one of the many examples of their protest letters.) More tellingly, they used their considerable lobbying power to try to get Congress to end all funding for WHO unless WHO changed its recommendations. (You can read that story here.)

Do you not think this happens every day? Read “Food Politics” by Marion Nestle.

(Buyer beware: You’ll never look at the “food pyramid” in the same way.)

Even the government is not stupid enough to pay to grow food and then turn around and tell you not to buy it or eat it. As long as our antiquated and anti-health farm bill dictates food policy (beneath the radar of most people other than Michael Pollan), you can expect our government “health” agencies like the FDA and USDA to make decisions in keeping with the economic interests of those whose industries they support.

It’s interesting that with all the shouting these days about “income redistribution” (on both sides of the aisle), the biggest wholesale income redistribution of all is going on right under the radar: it’s the distribution of your tax dollars being paid to agribusiness to produce tons of wheat, soy corn and sugar and to subsidize them so they can be made more cheaply and plentifully. (It’s called “The Farm Bill”.)

Our government- through your tax dollars- literally subsidizes the growing of foods that are making you fat and sick.

And in a stunning parallel to what goes on in the pharmaceutical industry (and oil industry for that matter), the players move porously and effortlessly from government to academia to industry, a congressman one day, a lobbyist the next, an industry executive one minute and a member of the group regulating that industry a nanosecond later. This kind of lateral movement from industry to regulator-of-that-industry is legion.

So am I saying that you shouldn’t trust the government about anything? Or that it is all a vast conspiracy?

Absolutely not.

What I am saying is that there exists a very complex and porous set of relationships between the players in academia, government, industry and agribusiness. That relationship—sometimes subtly and sometimes bluntly—influences most if not all of the “government approved” health directives like the Food Pyramid.

These relationships color, filter and shape an enormous amount of information that the public, unwisely and naively, believes to be “scientific and objective”.

“Special interests” anyone?

For those who might be interested, it’s not just the government, it’s also their handmaidens like the American Dietetic Association. On the day that the ADA actually takes a stand against some government approved recommendation like eating 6-11 servings of grains or cutting back on saturated fat it will be a cold day in hell. Their job is to carry water for the big boys and the day that they have an original collective thought or take a controversial position on anything I’ll be happy to eat my hat along with, just for good measure, the computer I’m typing this on.

So what do you do? Ignore all government recommendations and throw out anything you hear from mainstream health organizations like the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association or (rolls eyes) the American Dietetic Association?

No. But you take those recommendations with more than a few grains of salt, and you supplement them by reading, learning and studying on your own. Read the “gurus” (and their critics). Investigate both sides of every argument (especially when those arguments are compelling and not just some internet BS).

Don’t ignore “mainstream” recommendations, but see what other people that you respect think about them. There are a lot of really smart establishment critics out there. I’m glad you’re reading me, but you shouldn’t  follow me blindly any more than you should blindly follow government or medical recommendations. I hope you’ll keep reading me, but also read Drs. Mike Eades, Mark Hyman, Leo Galland, Gary Taubes, the Healthy Skeptic, the reporting of Jimmy Moore… you get the picture.

Then make up your own mind.

And—most importantly—always be willing to change it.

Remember, if history is any guide- and it usually is—in 50 years we’ll be looking at some of these government approved recommendations for eating, rolling our eyes and saying, “What were they thinking??