Will a full plate of dietary information baffle or inform Americans?

For anyone who made healthier eating a major new year’s resolution, there’s been much food for thought in recent news reports about what we put in our mouths. Here’s a quick look at timely developments: new federal nutrition guidelines, why consumers get confused about nutrition, how Mexican officials are getting good results in curbing some of their nation’s excess sugar consumption, and how U.S. prosecutors are stepping up efforts to safeguard what we eat.

dga-2015Diet guidelines

The federal government confused many (ordinary consumers), upset some (diet researchers), and pleased others (meat and egg providers) with its latest nutrition guidelines. These are issued every five years to advise Americans about healthy eating. In brief, Uncle Sam probably didn’t surprise anyone with his recommendations to: drastically reduce sugar and salt intake; eat more fruits and vegetables; and for men and boys, to concentrate on eating higher quality and less protein.

The U.S. government’s new Dietary Guidelines for Americans created controversy anew by eliminating strict cholesterol limits, a boon for the egg industry, and by declining to call for reductions in consumption of red meat, a victory for the meat industry. A common theme for coverage on the new guidelines was experts questioning just how useful and helpful the advisories can be: Why, for example, did U.S. officials take on salt consumption in the way they did? Will consumers grasp milligram measurements and can they curb their salt use if they’re not fully aware of its presence in processed and restaurant-prepared foods?

I’ve just offered some ideas about happier and healthier eating in my newsletter. As I’ve written, moderation matters, and we all shouldn’t vex ourselves too much about what and how we eat.

Perplexed by nutrition science?

Confusion over healthy nutrition likely will persist. Part of it rests in the challenges of doing good science in an area where the research is so fraught: Scientists, alas, can’t lock their subjects in cells, rigorously regulate their every food and drink, and, even if they could, we human subjects are each so different it’s tough to say exactly how our bodies interact with what we consume.

For the sake of public health, however, it also may be that consumers need more than dietary recommendations. In Mexico, for example, where obesity poses huge national health risks, authorities are seeing early success with a soda tax aimed at getting Mexicans to reduce their enormous appetite for sweet drinks. Researchers blame sky-high sugar consumption by Mexicans as a factor in their nation’s obesity, diabetes, and heart woes.

Prosecutors and food-borne illness outbreaks

Meantime, in the United States, prosecutors may be stirring themselves to act against food vendors whose products end up sickening large numbers of Americans. The U.S. Justice Department has launched an investigation into the makers of Blue Bell ice cream after a a summer outbreak of Listeria that killed three, CBS News and other media report. The Chipotle restaurant chain, already struggling with an E Coli outbreak that has sickened dozens and led the Mexican fast-food vendor to shutter restaurants in Oregon and Washington, has confirmed that it has been served with federal subpoenas over a norovirus outbreak that sickened more than 200 in California.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, this prosecutor activity is part of a trend: The feds got a ConAgra Foods Inc. unit to pay a record fine and plead to a federal misdemeanor charge stemming from a 2006-2007 salmonella outbreak; Stewart Parnell, former owner of Peanut Corp. of America, was sentenced to 28 years in prison in September for presiding over a cover-up in a deadly salmonella outbreak involving peanut butter and other products.

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