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Sugar wins again: USDA ignores advice to lower sugar and alcohol recommendations

Sugar wins again: USDA ignores advice to lower sugar and alcohol recommendations

Together with everyone at Step One Foods, this summer I applauded when a panel of scientists recommended that USDA dietary guidelines call for reductions in added sugar and alcohol intake. These guidelines only get revised every five years even though they have a significant impact on the heart health of Americans. So the stakes are high. (Here are reminders on how we feel about added sugar and alcohol.)

But on Dec. 30, the USDA announced it was rejecting those recommendations, arguing that “the new evidence reviewed since the 2015-2020 edition is not substantial enough to support changes to the quantitative recommendations for either added sugars or alcohol.” 

The current guidelines call for less than 10% of calories to come from added sugars, which translates to 50 grams or 12 teaspoons per day.  The 20-person Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee wanted a cap of 6% of calories from added sugars (30 grams or 7.5 teaspoons). In its suggestions, the group cited high rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. 

As for alcohol, the new guidelines retain the recommendation of two drinks a day for men and one for women, whereas the advisory committee wanted a limit of one drink a day for both men and women. 

Some may argue that most Americans fail to follow USDA recommendations anyway (the average American gets a score of 59 out of 100 on following the guidelines) so why does it even matter. But guidelines should reflect scientific evidence for actual healthy living, not mirror what people are already doing -- or failing to do. 

It’s not always possible to avoid all added sugars (for example, some dried fruit requires added fruit juice - which is categorized as an added sugar - otherwise the dried fruit would be hard as rocks), but a lot of the added sugar present in our food system is there because it improves taste.  Taste is the only reason there are nearly 40 grams (or 10 teaspoons) of added sugar in one regular can of Coke. 

Given that last fact, you have to wonder how much influence food and beverage lobbyists had over the ultimate USDA document.  It’s almost too convenient that a can of Coke could fly under the radar screen of added sugar limits with existing guidelines - but would have stood out like a sore thumb if Advisory Committee recommendations had been adopted.

There are a few improvements in the new guidelines: The USDA says that we should prioritize food choices rich in nutrients (a high five for Step One!). And, for the first time, it provides guidance by stage of life, from birth to older adulthood, including pregnancy and lactation -- including no added sugar for infants and toddlers.

Maybe they’ll get it right in 2025 -- but I’m not holding my breath.

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