News that the U.S. government’s next set of dietary guidelines for 2025-30 may include warnings against ultra-processed foods should be greeted with ultra-cautious optimism. The committee that revises the guidelines every five years, appointed by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, has too many members with conflicts of interest, say nonprofit organizations.
A report by one group, U.S. Right to Know, points out that nine of the 20 members have had financial relationships “with food, pharmaceutical or weight loss companies or industry groups with a stake in the outcome of the guidelines.” This is a familiar complaint: Big Food has too much influence over the guidelines and too much interest in protecting ultra-processed foods from scrutiny.
Ultra-processed foods, or UPFs, are defined as “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, typically created by series of industrial techniques and processes.” Some examples: carbonated soft drinks, candies, mass-produced packaged bread, cookies, margarine, fruit yogurt, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, sausages, burgers, hot dogs and even baby formula.
Although such foods tend to be convenient, accessible and cheap, they are also associated with weight gain. As Chris van Tulleken, an infectious diseases specialist and an assistant professor at the University College London, recently told my colleague Amanda Little:
“They disrupt our bodies’ ability to regulate appetite and digestion. We also know that diets heavy in ultra-processed ingredients increase our risk of heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular disease as well as dementia, metabolic diseases like Type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, cancers including bowel, liver and breast cancer, and early death.”
If that’s not scary enough, consider this: More than half the calories consumed by Americans come from UPFs, and the proportion is even higher for kids.
Given the overwhelming evidence that such foods are bad for you, it is hard to imagine how even the most energetic lobbying by the food industry can prevent the guidelines committee from reckoning with the harmful effects of a diet rich in ultra-processed foods. “The evidence is so enormous, to ignore it would put the committee in the position of its guidelines being out of date even before they come out,” says Marion Nestle, professor emerita of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.
But Thomas Sherman, professor of pharmacology and physiology at Georgetown University Medical Center, says he’d be surprised if the committee actually recommended any restrictions on UPFs: “We’ve known for a long time that excessive sugar or saturated fats is dangerous, but they’ve never explicitly warned against those in previous guidelines.” Nestle, who herself served on the 1995 committee, warns against holding up much hope on the guidelines providing clarity: “They are inconsistent, contradictory and impossible to understand — and deliberately so.”
If the guidelines tend to be vague, then so is their purpose. Although they are formally titled “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” they are not really directed at ordinary consumers. Instead, they are developed and written for a professional audience of policymakers, health-care providers, educators and administrators of federal nutrition programs. In other words, people who already know, or should already know, the risks associated with UPFs.
The responsibility for influencing what Americans eat falls mainly to the USDA’s MyPlate Plan, which replaced the old Food Pyramid in 2011, with the enthusiastic backing of then-first lady Michelle Obama. A dozen years on, that worthy initiative has proven to be a limp biscuit: According to a study released late last year by the National Center for Health Statistics, only one in four American adults had heard of the MyPlate Plan, and fewer than one in 10 had tried to follow its recommendations.
If the government is really serious about reducing the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the average American’s diet, it would have to reverse the polarity of policies followed over many decades and tax UPFs more and subsidize whole foods more. That, Nestle acknowledges, “is simply impossible in the current political climate.”
The next best thing is statutory warnings on the packaging of UPFs, akin to the kind you see on cigarette packs. Prominent labeling has been shown to be successful where it has been attempted, such as in parts of Latin America. Big Food would likely resist any attempt to replicate that in the U.S.
But that’s a food fight worth having — and much more meaningful than futzing around with governmental nutritional guidelines.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering culture. Previously, he covered foreign affairs.