Dairy dispute over healthy eating guidelines

Experts call the new Eatwell Guide a step in the right direction, but industry objects to recommendations to consume less milk products.

The government’s revision of what constitutes a healthy diet has created a bit of a stir. In March, Public Health England (PHE) replaced the Eatwell Plate with the Eatwell Guide to reflect recent nutritional recommendations, including those on sugar, fibre and starchy carbohydrates from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s report in 2015, “Carbohydrates and Health”.

The new advice suggests carbohydrates and fruit and vegetables should make up 38% and 40% of daily consumption respectively. Beans, pulses and meat should form 12% of food intake, but people should “eat less red and processed meat”. Foods high in fat, sugar and salt should make up no more than 8%.

However, it is the halving of dairy intake – from 16% to 8% – that has grabbed the headlines. The dairy industry has been left “baffled” by the decision, which “goes against a series of recent public announcements and reports which show a better understanding of the role of milk and dairy products in a healthy and balanced diet by government and parliamentarians”, said the Dairy UK chief executive, Judith Bryans.

The dairy all-party parliamentary group, which has only just published a report recommending a “three a day” campaign for dairy products, was left similarly puzzled. “Dairy products are full of key nutrients we all need, from the well- known calcium and protein to the lesser-known iodine and vitamin B12. We should be making every effort to encourage dairy consumption, not taking steps to reduce it,” the group noted.

But PHE is convinced it has got its maths right. “We are all having too much saturated fat and salt in our diets, which is detrimental to our health,” said its chief nutritionist, Dr Alison Tedstone. “The new Eatwell Guide supports people to reduce saturated fat and salt consumption while still meeting official calcium and iodine advice and is based on robust scientific evidence.”

The changes have otherwise been widely supported – especially the (tentative) move to encourage consumption of less meat and more plant-based proteins. Though the guidelines are based purely on the provision of a healthy diet, an analysis by the Carbon Trust shows that the Eatwell recommendations have an “appreciably lower” environmental impact than the current UK diet.

But it doesn’t go far enough if emissions are to be cut by 80% by 2050. To achieve that target, total emissions – from food, as well as travel, heating and so on – will need to fall from 11.9 tonnes to 2.4 tonnes per person. Currently, the average UK consumer uses 145% of that allowance in food consumption alone. A switch to the new guide’s recommendations could reduce this to 100%.

It’s therefore a “small step” in the right direction, says Mark Driscoll, the head of food at Forum for the Future. Indeed, far more significant shifts in consumption patterns will be required, with meat the principal target.

“Meat is typically the most greenhouse gas intensive part of our diet, but the guidelines fail to explicitly recommend eating less of it,” adds Clare Oxborrow, the chair of the Eating Better campaign. “Equally, the guide makes no attempt to promote more sustainable farming methods, when promoting a farming sector fit for the future should be a priority.”

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