Many Americans struggle with questions over what makes a healthy diet: skim or whole milk? Lean meat or no meat at all? Is there such a thing as "good fat"?
Amid a national conversation about high rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease, uncertainty over what to eat has unnerved many Americans trying to sift through marketing and dieting trends.
The latest tussle over the next edition of the government’s nutrition guidelines may not help much. Federal officials and experts are drawing up the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, a series of recommendations updated every five years that will be released in December.
The guidelines are meant to be used as general recommendations for what to put on your plate, but they also affect policies on school lunches, food stamps and other issues.
A congressional committee veered on Wednesday from health to politics, highlighting worries that what ends up on American tables could be affected by special interest groups, environmental concerns and private sector bias as much as by science.
In his opening remarks, the chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, noted that the heightened public interest in the guidelines was evident from more than 29,000 comments related to an advisory report that is to be partly used to draft them.
Conaway urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the secretary of health and human services, during the testimony to be transparent about the science behind the recommendations, especially "at a time when consumers are already subjected to conflicting and often contradictory nutrition and health information."
Take butter and eggs. During testimony, Rep. Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., said Americans were once told they were unhealthy but now they were OK.
"People may be losing confidence in these guidelines," he said.
Others mentioned a debate over whole versus low-fat milk.
Vilsack and Burwell said factors such as sodium consumption and cholesterol were part of the conversation while drafting the latest guidelines.
"The reality is that science changes," Vilsack said.
"All of this is evolving," he said added later.
The more than 500-page advisory report, released in February, repeated some recommendations from the 2010 guidelines.
It said Americans should be encouraged to eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, beans and nuts, with a moderate intake of low- and nonfat dairy products and alcohol, and a lower intake of red and processed meat, as well as sugar-sweetened items.
In a blog post published before their testimony Wednesday, Vilsack and Burwell said the 2015 guidelines would be similar in many respects to those of past years, saying lean meats and low-fat dairy items were among "building blocks of a healthy lifestyle."
But during his testimony Vilsack gave no further insight into what the final guidelines would say, or how, if at all, any recommendations would be modified. He emphasized that the guidelines were still a work in progress; the advisory report would help inform rather than dictate a drafting process that would still bring in interdepartmental opinions, the public comments, other experts and scientific studies.
The testimony reflected how political and controversial the food industry has become. The 2015 guidelines have been preceded by sugar and meat industry lobbying, as well as accusations that the panel behind the advisory report was using outdated science and was overly critical of high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets, as an article in Fortune noted.
In a petition on Change.org directed at Vilsack and Burwell, the North American Meat Institute criticized the advisory report: "We believe the dietitians and nutritionists who make up the committee overstepped their bounds by not focusing on nutrition and instead wandering into environmental issues. In fact, we believe that processed meat products are sustainable because they limit spoilage and waste."
But Vilsack and Burwell said Wednesday that the drafting of the 2015 guidelines should not include a policy conversation about sustainability, which evaluates the environmental impact of a food source.
Vilsack also said there was some indication that childhood obesity rates were plateauing or slightly declining.
"But we still have work to do," he added.