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2015 in Review: Paleo and Nutrition Politics

Don’t let 2015 go just yet: here’s your chance to step back and look at the big picture of what changed and what issues were important. Take a look at some major political and nutritional themes of the past year and why they’re important for Paleo specifically, plus one headline that should have happened but didn’t.

Worry about Supplement Safety and Turning to Whole Foods

A lot of the news in 2015 gave us a reason to lean towards whole foods and away from supplements. An investigation in February uncovered serious contamination and fraud problems with supplements sold at major retailers like Target and Walgreens (and this wasn’t the first report like this; previous studies have also found high levels of contamination in herbal supplements). And closer to Paleo home territory, August saw a big scuffle in the Weston A. Price Foundation over Green Pastures fermented cod liver oil and whether it really was as nutrient-dense as it claimed to be – or even made from cod in the first place.

The cod liver oil controversy came at a time when more and more people have been leaning away from fish oil as a quick fix for inflammation and a way to prevent heart disease. Even without the potential issues with supplements, a few newer studies have questioned the true benefits of taking just the isolated oil, suggesting that it’s slower but ultimately better to eat real fish and minimize sources of inflammation in the first place.

Worries about the supplement industry (which is almost completely unregulated) are combining with science showing that whole foods may have benefits that supplements just can’t bring. And the result is a growing turn towards whole foods instead of getting nutrition out of a bottle.

Relaxing About Fat, but Worried About Sugar

Another big theme of 2015 was a slow but steady trend in mainstream nutrition of relaxing a little about saturated fat, and turning up the heat on added sugars as a culprit for obesity and chronic disease. In February, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee dropped its recommendation on cholesterol restriction, relaxed about saturated fat, and came down hard on added sugar. In August, another meta-analysis in the British Medical Journal found that saturated fat wasn’t associated with death, CVD, CHD, stroke, or Type 2 Diabetes.

It’s going to take a while for that to really filter down into popular consciousness, but it’s encouraging progress for the Paleo crowd.

Coke-Sponsored Research Takes a Hit

can of sugary soda

Probably a more accurate label than the one actually on the can.

On an anti-sugar note, 2015 saw huge progress against the beverage industry’s sponsorship of research that supports its own interests. The big problem of funding research is very complicated, but there is solid evidence that financial conflicts of interest bias results: 83% of independent studies conclude that sugar-sweetened drinks contribute to obesity, but only 27% of industry-funded studies agree. So these industry-funded studies have a huge potential to sway the balance of research, and in 2015 they really came under fire.

Coke in particular came in for criticism all year that really picked up in November. From 2010-2015, Coke spent $120 million on scientific research and partnerships with medical groups. But in November of 2015, the University of Colorado returned a $1 million grant from Coke. Now other groups are also rejecting Coke’s money, at a time when soft drink sales are down anyway. Here’s to hoping that 2016 keeps the trend going!

Labeling Wars

Two other struggles this year revolved around labeling. Specifically, country-of-origin labeling for meat, and GMO labeling, especially for the new transgenic salmon. This is an important Paleo issue, because meat is one of the basic Paleo staple foods: it matters where it comes from and what’s in it.

Country of origin labeling (or COOL) is the reason your food has those “Product of ___________” stickers. The United States has required country-of-origin labeling since 2013, on the grounds that people have a right to know where their food comes from.

But Canada and Mexico in particular have opposed America’s COOL laws, on the grounds that that American consumers might be biased against meat labeled as being from other countries, or that the foreign label might lead people to believe that the meat wasn’t as high in quality as meat from the United States. Canada and Mexico brought their complaints to the World Trade Organization, which ruled against the United States, and in June of this year, the House passed a bill repealing mandatory country-of-origin labeling for beef, pork, and chicken.

Another labeling fight of 2015 revolved around the first GMO meat: the AquAdvantage salmon. The new salmon is genetically modified to grow faster, on less food. Initially, it didn’t have to be labeled. But just a few weeks ago, a federal spending bill changed that, and now the salmon will have to be labeled as genetically modified.

It’s a pretty mixed bag of developments, depending on what you think is important to know about. And it’s another argument for buying meat from a local farmer: you always know exactly where it comes from!

Antibiotic Resistance: Still Apocalyptic, Still Coming for Us.

One last big problem of 2015 was antibiotic-resistant bacteria. About 80% of antibiotic use in the US goes to animals in factory farms, as a growth promoter and to prevent disease. The constant low-dose use breeds drug-resistant bacteria, making those same antibiotics useless for saving people from potentially dangerous diseases. A study in February predicted that antibiotic abuse would only continue to rise. In November, scientists in China found E. coli bacteria resistant to our last-resort antibiotic in animals and human patients.

It should be reasonably obvious why this is a problem, especially considering recent outbreaks of food poisoning at Chipotle and elsewhere. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it feels like to be in the hospital with E. coli and have the doctor throw up his hands and say there’s nothing he can do…well, soon you might get the chance.

But in January of 2015, the good news also broke that a new, resistance-resistant antibiotic might delay the problem by a few years, if scientists can get it ready for humans in time.

The News that Should have Been: The Dietary Guidelines

There’s a big-ticket item missing from this: the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which were supposed to be out a week ago.

2015 saw a huge struggle with the meat industry lobby over whether or not the Dietary Guidelines could consider environmental welfare. Lobbyists for the meat industry obviously objected: factory farming is how the vast majority of Americans get their meat, and factory farming is an environmental disaster, so if the Dietary Guidelines considered the environment, it would recommend eating less meat.

The meat industry eventually won that one: the Dietary Guidelines will only consider nutritional factors. That might sound like good news for the Paleo crowd (one less reason to demonize perfectly nutritious foods like beef!), but it’s not. Look a few paragraphs up the page: factory farms are making sugar pills out of some of the drugs we rely on most. There might not be anything nutritionally wrong with meat, but we still need to address the problem of factory farming, and the meat industry just defeated one push towards a solution.

Even if you eat Paleo, the Dietary Guidelines will affect your life (do your kids eat school lunches? Does your workplace have some kind of fitness program? Do you care about the health of people around you who pay attention to the official recommendations?). The news in February that the Guidelines were dropping cholesterol restrictions was encouraging, so here’s to hoping that they’ll at least be better than the 2010 version, whenever they get here.