The Dietary Guidelines report is leaving the industry with questions about next steps as long-range product decisions, formulations and marketing strategies come into play. The Guidelines make it clear that the government's priority is sugar consumption. However, the meaty twist of the release is the lack of a warning against meat consumption.
While transparency remains an important step in alleviating consumer concerns regarding healthy food choices, will these dietary recommendations be an arsenal for consumers to turn to in hopes of clarifying what they should eat? Or will product presentation and preference still carry the most weight in purchasing decisions? Though larger CPG companies have been making efforts to regain market share - by reducing sugar and incorporating simpler, natural ingredients, 2016 will continue to prove challenging.
Sweet victory for meat
The meat industry's win is a talking point in the industry, but especially among consumers who saw the October WHO report that sent a cascade of "Meat causes cancer" headlines, but who missed the nuances in the report.
Chessa Lutter, a senior advisor of food and nutrition at WHO, additionally clarified to Food Dive that the October report was specifically focusing on cancer — a marked distinction from the Guidelines’ broad approach.
"I think it’s really important to recognize that the U.S. Dietary Guidelines are looking broadly at the effect of diet on health and not looking at a specific end point," she said. To that end, Lutter said the Dietary Guidelines in general fit with WHO's guidelines.
The science behind the DGAC report, however, left many concerned.
Jeff Volek, a professor in the Department of Human Sciences at The Ohio State University, cited weak science for the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee reasoning.
"There were a lot of opponents to the original language in the scientific report that was released earlier in 2015 that had a more anti-meat rhetoric," he told Food Dive. "The evidence linking meat to chronic disease was very weak and was primarily based on epidemiological data and really no prospective randomized clinical trials. I think it was all over-stated and not really justified in the scientific report and I would like to think that the science came through and the guidelines reflect more accurately the lack of cause and effect relationship in the scientific literature with meat and really any harmful effects."
North American Meat Institute President and CEO Barry Carpenter, applauded the guidelines.
"It is clear the agencies took great care in reviewing the science as well as comments on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report to develop a common sense policy document that all Americans can use to help them make healthy food choices," Carpenter said in a statement.
Carpenter was also not as satisfied with last February's DGAC report. In Carpenter's statement from just under a year ago, he called out the DGAC for not giving a stronger consideration for "lean meat" — which did earn a more prominent spot in the final guidelines.
Industry lobbying efforts
The industry bet on consumers paying attention to the Guidelines. Politico reported lobbying efforts by a number of industry associations, including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association ($112,000, with Dietary Guidelines as a concern) in the first nine months of last year; $780,000 from the National Pork Producers Council; and $220,000 from the North American Meat Institute. Coca-Cola Co., food industry, and farm groups spent $15.3 million on lobbying in the April to June 2015 quarter concerning the guidelines and other topics.
The meat industry didn't get through without a few dents, including a warning for teen boys and adult men to "reduce overall intake of protein foods by decreasing intakes of meat, poultry, and eggs." Considering the opportunity the Guidelines had, this warning pales in comparison to what could have been a more strict recommendation.
What the Guidelines actually mean for the industry
Spending-habit analysis shows that consumers aren't going to hold the Guidelines to a pinnacle standard in making everyday shopping choices.
At-home spending patterns in U.S. homes have a history of not matching up with USDA recommendations, according to a USDA's Economic Research Service study looking at consumer patterns from 1998 to 2006. Consumer spending lined up with USDA food plan recommendations in just 1 of 23 food sectors (potatoes). Those studied overspent on red meat by approximately three percentage points.
The current Dietary Guidelines highlight that approximately 75% of Americans aren't eating enough fruits and vegetables. It also says that most Americans are consuming too much added sugars, sodium, and saturated fat — the last of which Marion Nestle called a euphemism for meat. The saturated fat recommendation didn't change from the 2010 guidelines, remaining at less than 10% of daily food intake.
Nestle also argued the Guidelines inappropriately address meat. " 'Protein' lumps meat together with seafood, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, and soy," Nestle wrote in a blog post. "But grains and dairy also have protein, so using this term makes no nutritional sense and obfuscates the message to eat less meat."
The differences of opinion, the questioning of the sciene beg the question: are the Guidelines necessary or is the process in need of an overhaul?
"What's an optimal diet for one person may actually cause harm in another person," Volek said. "Having one single dietary recommendation for a heterogenic population doesn’t make a whole lot of sense."
He added, however, he didn't think eliminating the guidelines was the answer, and that ideally the Guidelines would account for more flexibility.
Where we go from here
The guidelines are certainly influential in the sheer amount of people it's targeting. But does the food industry have to worry about a drop in sales?
"No," Jaime Schwartz, vice president/director of nutrition at Ketchum PR, told Food Dive in an e-mail. "Americans get enough protein in their diets and the Dietary Guidelines highlight this. There could be a decline in sales of products that are not naturally high in protein but have high protein varieties, like cereal. But this is less related to the guidelines and more related to consumers becoming more aware of added sugars and recognizing that the higher protein varieties typically also have higher added sugars."
Also, clear communication — as always — will play a vital role in how the Guidelines come across. "For example, the International Food and Information Council found consumers felt that messages positive in tone were to be more likely to be motivating and alleviate confusion about nutrition and they were less receptive to messages that told them what not to do," Schwartz said.
And since consumers still hold purchasing power, the battle remains for keeping them interested in products.
"These guidelines do have an impact on the way Americans eat one way or the other, whether that’s direct or indirect," Volek said.