I think there are two substantial challenges in play before we can label foods with a nutrients score:
1) agreeing on what constitutes good nutrition and
2) having enough spine to let science govern policy.
I personally feel pretty confident that whole plant foods win, based on all the good science I've seen, but I'm also confident there would be tremendous pushback from people who advocate for all kinds of different diets, and especially from the big food companies that have a horse in the race.
If you read the minutes for the meetings they hold to determine the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (as I have), you'd see the wildly different comments they get from "public" voices when they open the floor. I wrote this up on my blog awhile back because I was fascinated by the drama that unfolded:
Public voice #1: Executive Director of McCormick Seasoning
He, predictably, wants more “spice” in the dietary guidelines. “Sounds like a good food group to encourage.”
(He says, in reference to spices.)
Public voice #2: Senior Vice President of Nutrition Affairs with the National Dairy Council
“leading health authorities recommend three to four daily servings of dairy.”
(She says, to a group of supposedly THE authorities on health.)
“If dairy foods are not included in the diet, calcium and potassium are severely compromised.” (Fascinating, considering it’s well documented that the countries consuming the most dairy have the most cases of osteoporotic hip fractures. And I’m not aware of widespread hypokalemia (potassium deficiency) in countries that skip dairy. Low-dairy Japan is ranked #3 for life expectancy whereas America is #50. I’m glad we aren’t severely compromised like Japan.)
Public voice #3: Vice President for Consumer Marketing at the National Pork Board
“Americans are not overconsuming meat.”
(Well, since he says it, it must be true!)
Public voice #4: dietitian at the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine
“Every five years since 1980, the government has given new health and nutrition advice to the American public through the Dietary Guidelines, and every year since then, the American public has become markedly more overweight and obese. ”
(Well, she certainly got MY attention)
“The average American now eats more than 200 pounds of meat per year, approximately the double global norm. We eat about 30 pounds of cheese per year, three times as much as we did in 1970.”
“It is time for the Guidelines to take direct aim at the diet-related diseases that claim millions of American lives each year.”
“Vegetarian diets should be touted as the ideal”
“Science supports a low-fat, plant-based diet for optimal health.”
“The studies continue to show that these types of diets still prevent type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some types of cancer.”
“Guidelines should rely solely on evidence-based research and disregard any special interest groups. It is possible to set the bar as high as the science dictates.”
(And the crowd goes wild. Ok, maybe just I did. )
Public Voice #5 – Vice President for Nutrition with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
“In fact, today’s pork is 30 percent leaner than 30 years ago, and beef is 20 percent leaner than 14 years ago. ”
(Stores also sell Kool-aid with less sugar. Does that make it an essential part of one’s diet? I’m just sayin’.)
“Despite the common reference that animal fats are saturated, nearly 50 percent in red meat are monounsaturated, and one-third of the saturated fat in beef and pork is stearic, which have a neutral or cholesterol-lowering effect.”
(So, what you’re saying is… animal fat is saturated, just not all of it? Sweet. Sign me up. )
Vote count thus far?
1 for plant-based diet, 3 for meat & dairy.
Take note that the plant-based vote came from someone with no obvious financial motivation, whereas the beef, pork, and dairy people have billions of dollars at stake.
It got more interesting from there as the salt, sugar, refined grain, and nut representatives all had their turn to speak for "the public." But close to half of the 50 public commenters pleaded for plant-based, evidence-based guidelines and had no financial stake in the changes. They were school lunch coordinators, concerned teenagers, doctors. That's powerful! But that was also nearly 10 years ago and the guidelines issued since then continue to tread very carefully around targeting any particular food or food group as more or less healthy.
More from the meeting on my blog...