U.S. Urged to Cut Sugar Equal to a Half-Can of Coke a Day

  • Diet guidelines come after lobbying by PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz
  • Beverage taxes called for by earlier advisory panel excluded

Americans need to cut back on sugars found in sodas and snacks to curb obesity, according to dietary guidelines issued by the U.S. government Thursday that include, for the first time, specific targets for sweetener consumption.

Less than 10 percent of daily calories for adults should come from sugars added to packaged foods and sodas, according to the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services which jointly released the guidelines. Americans currently get more than 13 percent of their calories from such sources. Cutting the equivalent of half a 12-ounce non-diet soda each day would reach the new goal.

“It can be a challenge to make sure healthy eating is a priority. The guidelines help to take out that guesswork” by offering specific targets for sugar and other substances, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said in a teleconference.

The guidelines, issued twice each decade, refine recommendations made nearly a year ago by a government-appointed scientific panel, which prompted lobbying by food and beverage giants including Coca-Cola Co. and Smithfield Foods Inc. Food companies, industry groups, and farmers far outnumbered health and consumer groups in lobbying for changes.

Beverage Lobby

The American Beverage Association, which represents Coke, PepsiCo Inc., Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc., and other drink makers, said it appreciates the work that went into the guidelines and said its companies “are doing their part” by offering low-calorie products and easy-to-understand nutritional information. 

The Sugar Association, a trade group of sweetener-sellers including American Sugar Refining Inc., the maker of Domino Sugar, said the recommendations are based on shoddy science, predicting that guidance on added sugars will some day be reversed.

“These ‘added sugars’ recommendations will not withstand the scrutiny of a quality, impartial evaluation of the full body of scientific evidence,” the group said in a statement. “The lack of scientific rigor in this process has and will continue to result in consumer apathy, distrust and confusion.”

Cholesterol Adjustment

The final rules dialed back many of the earlier panel’s suggestions, including what would have been a new section on sustainable eating, and public-policy measures such as a tax on sodas. Still, the guidelines aren’t good news for beverage makers such as Coke or PepsiCo, even as they tout more consumption of products such as low-fat yogurt, such as that made by Danone and General Mills Inc.

The panel also removed a long-standing warning on cholesterol levels while urging Americans to cut unnecessary consumption. The findings reflect mounting evidence that eating foods high in the substance, such as eggs and shrimp, has only a small effect on blood cholesterol levels and an insignificant relationship with heart disease. The 2010 guidelines said people should consume less than 300 milligrams a day of cholesterol.

Fighting Fat

The report comes as the Obama administration seeks ways to fight obesity, which now affects more than one-third of American adults and 17 percent of children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The guidelines also help shape school lunch menus and the $6 billion a year Women, Infants and Children program, which serves more than 8 million Americans buying groceries from retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kroger Co.

About half of all U.S. adults have one or more preventable chronic diseases relating to poor diets and physical inactivity, including hypertension, diabetes and diet-related cancers, according to the government. More than two-thirds of adults and almost one-third of youth are considered overweight or obese.

“The advice presented in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is sound, sensible, and science-based,” said Michael Jacobson, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. “If Americans ate according to that advice, it would be a huge win for the public’s health.”

Lean Meat

Along with sugars, saturated fats from sources such as cheese or meats should also be limited to no more than 10 percent of calories, according to the guidelines. Sodium consumption should be limited to 2,300 milligrams a day, or one teaspoon.

The inclusion of lean meat as part of a recommended healthy diet resolved criticism from groups including the North American Meat Institute over a scientific advisory panel downplaying the healthfulness of red meat.

“Lean beef is a wholesome, nutrient-rich food that helps us get back to the basics of healthy eating,” Richard Thorpe, a Texas cattle rancher and physician, said in a statement distributed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a livestock group based in Washington.

Limit Intake

Still, meat was not absolved in the guidelines. Teenage boys and men are eating too much protein, according to the guidelines, and are recommended to reduce their intake of red meat, poultry and eggs.

The meat guidelines could have been still more specific, said Kari Hamerschlag, senior program manager with Friends of the Earth, an advocacy group based in Washington.

“Despite clear evidence that high red meat consumption is linked to cancer and threatens future food security because of its huge resource demands, the 2015 guidelines failed to make a specific portion size recommendation for red meat” as in the 2010 version, Hamerschlag said in a statement. The group applauded that the guidelines for the first time highlighted a vegetarian diet as a healthy-eating pattern.

Soda Tax

Provisions in last year’s report from scientists dealing with sustainable food sources and taxes on soda were already deemed dead before the final report’s release. The heads of both USDA and HHS had said they didn’t want political hot potatoes included in the guidelines, and Congress had added language restricting the guidelines to food-nutrition matters in a spending bill passed in December.

The government’s guide to healthy eating is based on the findings of a nonpartisan advisory panel it appoints to revise previous guidelines based on a review of recent nutrition science. Those findings, released in February, were followed by food-industry and public-health lobbying that sought to mold those suggestions.

Industry enjoyed a lopsided advantage.

In the first three quarters of 2015, 60 advocacy groups and companies, from the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation and Kraft Heinz Co. to the American Medical Association, lobbied the government on the guidelines. About four-fifths of the groups represented farmers, food companies or industry groups, with health, consumer and environmental activists accounting for the remainder, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Studies have tied snacks and sugary beverages to high obesity rates, and the World Health Organization ruled red meat a cancer risk in October.

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