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Beef and dairy take a hit in new USDA Dietary Guidelines


With the closing of a rocky year and the arrival of a new (hopefully better) one, the much awaited 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans has been released, issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The report is a long time in the making, and segments such as ranchers and dairy farmers were particularly eager to see the results.

In the big picture, producers involved in fruits and vegetables should cheer while beef producers might not be so happy. Those involved in distilled spirts and other alcohol-related production might likewise be less than ecstatic, but all in all, the new guidelines yielded few surprises considering the nation’s ongoing battle with obesity and other related diseases.

A meaty and very detailed report, the new guidelines propose to offer science-based advice on diet as it pertains to health and the reduction of chronic disease. There was frequent mention in the guidelines of “nutrient-dense” foods — the kind that provide a rich array of vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting components. According to the USDA’s data, that includes: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans, peas, and lentils, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and lean meats and poultry — when prepared with no or little added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. 

This list will be disappointing in some respects to dairy farmers, who, as part of the International Dairy Foods Association, recently launched a video campaign lauding the nutritional value of full-fat milk and asking for that kind of milk to be brought back into our nation’s schools. The guidelines didn’t go that far, however, the National Dairy Council said that it was pleased that milk and cheeses in at least some form were included. Additionally, for the first time, the DGA recommendations for the birth-to-23-month time period are included and yogurt and cheese were recognized as complementary feeding options for infants starting as early as 6 months.

“Dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt offer essential nutrients that help nourish people throughout life,” said National Dairy Council President Jean Ragalie-Carr, RDN, LDN, FAND. “At a time when affordable nutrition has never been more important to our nation, dairy foods, including lactose-free varieties, are a highly nutritious and accessible option that can help fill important nutrient gaps and support overall well-being.”

Similarly, the emphasis strictly on “lean meats” will likely leave many beef producers a little disillusioned and looking to reinforce the positive science behind beef as a valuable and efficient protein source.

Still, beef and dairy didn’t shoulder the brunt of the report, which put sweets, saturated fats, and sodium squarely in its primary crosshairs.

Some news outlets (like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Associated Press) have been quick to criticize the guidelines for not doing enough based on scientific recommendations that an advisory panel released over the summer. In an article, The NYT, for example, led off by saying, “Rejecting the advice of its scientific advisers, the federal government has released new dietary recommendations that sound a familiar nutritional refrain, advising Americans to ‘make every bite count’ while dismissing expert recommendations to sharply reduce consumption of sugar and alcoholic beverages.” 

Building on the 2015 edition, the USDA publication’s three-fold aim is to: Promote health and prevent disease; focus on larger dietary patterns within the public; and address nutritional answers with the full human lifespan in mind. The guidelines are updated every five years.

Agricultural producers of every kind should take note: The recommendations issued by the USDA here not only reveal larger goals, but help shape consumer trends at every level. Whether meal-planning for schools, restaurants, or the stocking of shelves in the grocery stores, the government’s recommendations regarding sugar intake, alcohol consumption, red meat, and vegetable intake, will certainly play a role in shaping supply and demand for years to come.

Farm to School
Image By Africa Studio, Shutterstock

Points to Consider

The report itself is broken down into chapters according to age and stage, with special consideration given to the nutritional needs of diverse populations. Chapter 2 focuses on infants and toddlers, while Chapter 3 addresses children and adolescents. The fourth chapter discusses nutritional needs for individuals aged 19 through 59, with the fifth chapter dedicated entirely to women who are pregnant or lactating. The sixth chapter features recommendations for adults 60 and older.

The primary thrust of the report is that Americans should follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage, and customize nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences. Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and stay within calorie limits, while limiting those with higher volumes of added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium.

Specific mentions in this report include: 

  • Continued focus on alcohol: The report advises limiting alcohol consumption to two drinks per day for men and one for women. One drink is defined as a 12-ounce bottle of beer, a five-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5 ounce shot of liquor. This is unchanged from the last guidelines.
  • Paying close attention to sugar: The new report advises less than 10 percent of total caloric intake come from added sugars. At present, the USDA estimates that added sugars make up 13 percent of the total daily diet, largely coming from beverages, desserts, snacks, candy, and cereals. The USDA also estimates that 79 percent of children ages 4 to 18 are exceeding the daily sugar limits, with the major cause being soft drinks and commercial juices.
  • Allergies on target: The USDA now advises that babies should be offered peanuts, eggs, and other allergy-related foods in their first year of life so as to lower their risk later on. The report also advises against any added sugars in a baby’s diet until at least 24 months.

Focus on Patterns

The USDA recommends that for the average American requiring a 2,000-calorie level diet, diversity is as key as customizing to suit the eater’s preferences. A hypothetical American is therefore recommended to consume, in a week:

  • 1.5 cups dark-green vegetables
  • 5.5 cups red and orange vegetables
  • 1.5 cups beans/peas/lentils
  • 5 cups starchy vegetables
  • 4 cups of other vegetables
  • 2 cups of fruit per day
  • 6 ounces of grain per day
  • 3 cups of dairy per day
  • 5.5 ounces of protein per day
  • 27 grams of oils per day
  • 26 ounces of meat/poultry/eggs per week
  • 8 ounces of seafood per week
  • 5 ounces of nuts/seeds/soy per week

Notice that what specific foods one would choose to hit those targets remains up to the individual as keeping people happy is key to getting the right foods on the plate. Ag producers will notice the continued downward trend in recommendations for red meat in favor of other protein forms, with vegetable portions swinging upward.

Some of these recommendations scored points with industry groups, like The Grain Chain, which said it “applauds the recognition of grains as one of the traditional, nutritious first foods for infants. Numerous research studies have demonstrated significant, positive effects of nutrient absorption, improved nutrition quality, and overall wellness from enriched grains at various life stages.”

Image By Andy Shell, Shutterstock


The USDA makes it quite clear that the recommendations are aimed squarely at augmenting wellness and battling back chronic disease related to obesity. With 74 percent of the adult population overweight or obese, the report notes that 40 percent of children are in the same category. Heart disease remains the leading cause of death, with 18.2 million adults diagnosed with coronary artery disease, and 45 percent of adults having hypertension. Some 12 percent of women and 10 percent men have high total cholesterol rated at over 240 mg/dL, with 7 percent of children rating more than 200 mg/dL. Almost 11 percent of American have either type 1 or 2 diabetes, with 35 percent diagnosed as pre-diabetic. Meanwhile, 90 percent of diabetics are overweight or obese.

While the USDA notes that food itself cannot necessarily cure disease, it can certainly be used to promote health and wellness. This is particularly the case in terms of obesity-related diseases, strongly linked to excess sugar, alcohol, and certain kinds of fats.

An Ag-Centric Report

While the USDA doesn’t directly address producers in the report, the connection is clear from a market perspective. Producers of fruits and vegetables are certainly in for celebration, and the real question growing forward will whether support for those commodities is matched. The government and health officials continue to point the naughty stick at red meat and alcohol, but whether the report affects actual consumer demand or not remains to be seen.

That said, given the incoming administration of President Joe Biden’s stated campaign pledges to advance smaller, “greener” farm operations, which produce vegetables and fruits over large row-cropped operations, there might be some programming changes coming soon to match these goals.


Brian Boyce is an award-winning writer living on a farm in west-central Indiana. You can see more of his work at

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