In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay that's worth revisiting frequently, in which he describes how convoluted language can be used to intentionally confuse people and obfuscate the truth. "A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow," he wrote, "blurring the outline and covering up all the details."
I thought of Orwell's essay on obfuscation when I saw the latest food guide published today.
Every five years, the US government puts out a new version of these guidelines, which are supposed to reflect the latest nutrition science and help people make healthier choices about what food to eat. The guidelines are used by doctors and nutritionists to give diet advice, by schools to plan lunches, and by manufacturers to calculate nutrition information on food packages.
When I first started reading the 2015–2020 version, I had high hopes. "Previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines focused primarily on individual dietary components such as food groups and nutrients," it read. "However, people do not eat food groups and nutrients in isolation but rather in combination, and the totality of the diet forms an overall eating pattern."
That seemed like progress! Perhaps it meant that America could finally start to talk clearly and meaningfully about food.
But no. Instead, the new guidelines look like this:
This is remarkably ambiguous. It basically says we should eat healthy foods and avoid unhealthy foods without specifying what that actually means. It is not at all clear what "nutrient-dense foods" are, although we're supposed to take in more of them. There is more detail in three chapters that expound upon this summary. But it's mostly hopelessly convoluted. On one page, hilariously, the guideline authors use the term "protein foods" as a catchall for foods like meat and poultry. Who talks like that? "I'll have protein food on my salad, please."
It doesn't have to be this complicated.
To get a sense for food recommendations done right, check out Sweden's national guidelines. Here, the government gives useful advice about real food in simple terms anyone can comprehend:
There's no blather about "nutrient-dense foods" or "protein foods." There's no talk of "nutrient needs within calorie limits." The guidelines are simple. Eat more vegetables and fruits. Switch to whole grains. Eat less red meat.
So why doesn't the United States have clear guidelines like these? Blame politics and lobbying. As Marion Nestle documented in her seminal book Food Politics, nutrition science has been hammered into unrecognizable shapes for decades.
Back in the 1980s, for instance, scientists were finding that saturated fats could be harmful to the body. Meat is a key source of saturated fat. But the meat industry didn't want the government telling people to cut back. So after much lobbying, the official dietary guidelines settled on the message that we should all "eat less fat." That actually distorted the science, since unsaturated fats are perfectly fine — and the sugar-laden, low-fat craze that followed turned out to be a disaster for public health.
Part of the problem has to do with the process by which guidelines are made. A panel of government-appointed science advisers crunch nutrition data for months and then hand that information to officials at the US Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services. That data goes through a sausage-making process that involves gathering feedback from the public and, importantly, food industry representatives. Out pop the guidelines.
After endless rounds of squabbling, it's no surprise that the guidelines don't always clearly reflect the best science. Carefully negotiated language can overcomplicate simple facts we know about eating for health.
So instead of "eat less processed food," we have "reduce sodium intake." Instead of advising that we should cut back on soda and sugary drinks, the latest guidelines suggest that we should "shift to healthier beverage choices" and "limit added sugars," which is far less comprehensible. (Note, by the way, that this is the first time the food guidelines suggest any limit on added sugar, even though scientists have long known that eating too much sugar can be harmful — another lobbying victory.)
"Once again, the guidelines pussyfoot about what to eat less of," Nestle summed up.
Orwell's essay about obfuscation wasn't all bleak. He also pointed out that the process is reversible. I look forward to a time when America has a clear and meaningful conversation about food. It will come because it has to. Many of the biggest killers in the US — diabetes, obesity, heart disease — could be staved off with a better diet. Until then, I'll look to Sweden.