Food guides – Nutritional and political issues
Although there is no perfect model when it comes to nutrition, authorities in most Western countries publish 1-3 food guides to help us make wise choices that combine pleasure and health.
In this sheet devoted to food guides, we will first see the constraints faced by those who develop them. We will then look at three food guides with their respective recommendations. Finally, we will try to see in what direction the food guides are currently evolving, basing ourselves, among other things, on the suggestions of organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO).
In fact, to help the various countries establish their food guides, the WHO regularly publishes various guidance documents 4 . These deal as much with the nutritional content (based on the most recent scientific research) as with the best ways to have the new recommendations accepted by the various populations according to their customs, habits, traditions and socio-economic particularities. It was as a result of such suggestions that a few years ago food guides began to suggest eating certain foods or food groups rather than recommending eating a whole range of specific nutrients.
When consulting a food guide, it is important to know that it is not just a scientific document. Its development must also take into account cultural, political and economic factors. Thus, it is not only the nutrition specialists who take part in the decisions, but also the food industry, which can create conflicts of interest. We should mention in this regard that the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates vegetarianism, filed a complaint, and won, against the American Department of Agriculture in 2000 5 . The judgment determined that the Ministry intentionally withheld information regarding the links between food guide officials and the dairy, meat and egg industries.
In addition, when developing their guides, governments must take domestic policy constraints into account: self-sufficiency, support for agriculture, land use, promotion of resource regions, and so on. Finally, it would be counterproductive to promote a diet – however beneficial it may be for health – which would require such changes in eating or cooking habits that it would have virtually no chance of being adopted by the people.
These are all factors that explain why, despite similar basic principles, there are several differences between the guides, and why many pressure groups criticize them.