From: The Oxford Journal
"According to academic nutritionist Marion Nestle, “The U.S. government has been telling people what to eat for more than a century… .”26 By 1977, as we have seen, the federal government was telling people to eat low fat. This history of federal involvement in the American diet is essential for understanding how low fat conquered America in the 1980s and 1990s. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), established in 1862, had two main duties: to ensure a sufficient and reliable food supply and to provide information on subjects related to agriculture, the latter charge being interpreted to mean making dietary advice available to citizens. In 1917, the agency laid out five basic food groups: fruits and vegetables, meats and other protein foods, cereals and other starchy foods, sweets, and fatty foods. By 1958, the food groups were reduced to four: milk, meat, vegetable/fruit, and bread/cereal. In 1941, the Food and Nutrition Board of the U.S. Academy of Sciences introduced Recommended Daily Allowances, or RDAs, and from 1943 the department has produced revised versions at regular intervals.
In 1968, the Senate appointed George McGovern to chair a Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs mandated to look into the problem of hunger in America. This committee, which met until 1977, was instrumental in the federal government's promotion of low-fat diets. During the nine years of hearings, the committee's focus shifted from its initial emphasis on hunger and the poor to chronic disease and diet. Committee members became convinced that Americans were not only eating too much, but were also eating the wrong foods.
The committee's work culminated in its early 1977 report, Dietary Goals for the United States, which promoted increased carbohydrate and reduced fat consumption along with less sugar and salt. The report recommended that Americans eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, and fish, less meat, eggs, and high-fat foods, and that they substitute nonfat for whole milk. Critics, both scientific and industrial, called the diet-heart hypothesis unproved and the dietary recommendations disputable. Under pressure from many constituencies, but especially the food industry, the committee revised and reissued its report later in the year. The revision modified the cholesterol recommendations and changed the wording from the negative, such as “reduce meat consumption,” to the more open, “choose meats and fish that will reduce saturated fat.”
With the publication of the Dietary Goals, the federal government officially supported the low-fat approach. In 1978–79, the American Society of Clinical Nutritionists, the AHA, and the National Cancer Institute fell in line with their own low-fat recommendations. By 1980, a scientific consensus was emerging that a low-fat diet was needed to prevent the two leading causes of death, coronary heart disease and cancer. Federal government support for low fat continued with each official government publication from the 1979 Surgeon General's Healthy People to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, first issued in 1980 and every five years thereafter (a joint effort of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the USDA). Thus, by the 1980s, in spite of protests from the food industry and skeptical scientists, federal agencies forged a consensus on dietary advice at the same time that a growing scientific consensus advocated low fat for everyone. By the end of the decade, both the controversial Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health and the World Health Organization (WHO) were promoting low fat.
Although the food industry had initially worried about the low-fat approach, by the 1980s food producers had begun to realize that low fat could provide profit-making opportunities. The industry began replacing fat with sugar in processed foods, leading to what would by the 1990s become known as the “Snackwell's phenomenon,” low-fat foods that had just as many calories as the former high-fat versions.31 Driven by consumer demand and widespread advertising, in the 1980s and 1990s low-fat industrial foods proliferated to fill grocery store shelves. In 1992, after much controversy and negotiation, the USDA released its first and long-awaited food pyramid that lent full support to the ideology of low fat. Wide press coverage gave the pyramid much publicity, and it quickly became an icon. The pyramid soon became, according to Nestle, the “most widely distributed and best recognized nutrition education device ever produced in this country.”32 Meanwhile, the AHA launched its own low-fat campaign. In 1988, in an effort both to raise funds and promote better health, the AHA introduced its program to label foods with its “heart healthy” seal of approval, the now-familiar heart with the white check on it (Figure 1). Food companies would pay to label their foods with the AHA seal of approval. By 1990, endorsed food products started to appear in grocery stores, but there was a problem: fresh foods were not labeled. This exclusion could suggest to consumers that processed foods were the heart-healthiest. Following protests, the AHA withdrew the program, but reinstated it in 1993. By 1997, fifty-five companies were participating with over 600 products certified, many of which were cereal products, including Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, Fruity Marshmallow Krispies, and Low-Fat Pop-Tarts.
Supermarket chicken with AHA Seal of Approval. Under the red heart with the white check, the logo states: “Meets American Heart Association food criteria for saturated fat and cholesterol for healthy people over age 2.” Note that the chicken has been injected with a saline solution. Four ounces contain 200 mg of sodium. Approving meats injected with salt seems to be at odds with the AHA's long-standing efforts to reduce hypertension. Some hyptertensives are known to be salt-sensitive. Photo taken by me in Blacksburg, Virginia, summer 2005.
Was low fat the only thing that mattered for good health? Had the ideology of low-fat taken such a hold that that sugar-laden refined processed foods qualified for AHA approval as heart-healthy? No wonder consumers were confused and assumed that low fat was what really counted in terms of health. It was possible to think that if a food were low fat, one could eat to appetite. We begin to see how a profusion of products low in fat but high in sugar and calories might ironically promote the fattening of America, even while being labeled heart-healthy."
Read More: http://jhmas.oxfordjournals.org/content/63/2/139.long