About half of the members of a U.S. federal government panel that shapes dietary recommendations in the United States have significant financial ties to big agriculture, processed food companies, weight loss companies, pharmaceutical companies, and other corporate organizations a recent report reveals. An additional four committee members had “possible” financial conflicts of interest.1
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DAGC) is a committee of only 20 individuals, but their findings and recommendations ripple through national and international nutrition initiatives, affecting both food eaten in homes and in public spaces. The committee is charged with reviewing nutrition science every five years and then making what are considered “gold standard” dietary recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).2
These guidelines influence how doctors and other health care professionals and nutritionists treat patients; how federal food aid is distributed; food and nutrition labeling; how food products are formulated, and what foods are served in institutional settings such as hospitals, schools, assisted living homes, prisons and military facilities.1
The government transparency group known as U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) compiled publicly available data from the past five years about each of the 20 DGAC members and then published the report last month.
Government Transparency Organization Worried that Guidelines are “Another Sales Pitch for Big Food and Big Pharma”
“The guidelines affect the entire U.S. food system quite strongly,” stated Gary Ruskin of USRTK. “Millions of Americans’ lives are affected by this report and it’s crucial that the report tell the truth to American people, and it’s not degraded into another sales pitch for big food and big pharma.”1
At least four of the 20 panelists have connections to two or more companies, including medical device company Abbott Laboratories, pharmaceutical companies Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly, the National Dairy Council, and Weight Watchers International. One panel member has received almost $240,000 in grant funding from Eli Lilly.
“The last thing that a food or pharmaceutical company wants to have is a federal agency that says, ‘Don’t buy this stuff, don’t buy those products,’” Ruskin said. “That could potentially be a mortal threat to companies’ profit stream. So they are extremely attuned and sensitive to that possibility, and lobby in lots of ways to make sure that never happens.”1
USDA and HHS Under Pressure to Release Financial Conflict of Interest Disclosures
The USRTK report notes that both the USDA and HHS issued conflict of interest “disclosures” for the first time this year, but only after pressure from public health advocates and U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa. Critics call the disclosures vague and “far from comprehensive.” The disclosures only revealed compensations from the past year and “vaguely displays the conflicts without naming names.”3
The USRTK report stated it is aiming to “fill in the gaps” left by the apathetic disclosures.2
Panel Member Shaping Nutrition Guidelines Says Obesity is Genetic and Downplays Diet and Exercise
Panel member Fatima Cody Stanford, MD, MPH, an obesity medicine physician at Mass General Hospital in Boston, came under fire earlier this year following her controversial statements downplaying the value of diet and exercise in weight loss. Stanford, who heavily advocates for weight loss drugs, states that the number one cause of obesity is genetics.4
Critics say that a physician pushing weight loss drugs for obesity should not play a role in shaping public food policy. Cody Stanford has affiliations with pharmaceutical giants Novo Nordisk, Eli Lilly, and Pfizer, and accumulated almost $70,000 in consulting fees between 2018 and 2022.3
Frosted Mini Wheats Healthier Than Eggs, Milk, Steak and Cheese?
The chair of the committee, Sarah Booth, PhD, serves as director of the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. Earlier this year Tufts University researchers put out a “food compass” rating how healthy foods are on a scale from one to 100. The university’s food compass rates processed cereals such as Frosted Mini Wheats as being healthier than real foods such as eggs, milk, steak, cheese, and chicken. Tufts University touts the compass as “the most comprehensive and science-based nutrient profiling system to date. The research was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).5
“There is so much corporate money sloshing around under the surface in the nutrition field,” USRTK’s Ruskin stated. “The nutrition field acts like it’s for sale. Transparency isn’t the whole answer, but it’s a crucial first step toward crafting dietary advice Americans can trust.”3
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1 Perkins T. US nutrition panel’s ties to top food giants revealed in new report. The Guardian Oct. 6, 2023.
2 Mensendiek H. Report: nearly half of dietary guidelines advisory committee have conflicts of interest. U.S. Right to Know Oct. 4, 2023.
3 Tsai S. Report links dietary guidelines committee to food and pharmaceutical companies. The Epoch Times Oct. 4, 2023.
4 Shaheen M. Biden food panel after claiming that obesity can’t be treated with exercise and good diet because it’s genetic- will now tell Americans what to eat. Daily Mail Jan. 25, 2023.
5 Mares J. NIH-funded “food pyramid” rates Lucky Charms healthier than steak. Pirate Wires Nov. 10, 2022.