Food Policy

Bad Food Data and Science Still Make for Bad Food Policy

USDA's diet guidelines are a mess because the information it uses is suspect.


m01229 via / CC BY

A new study in the journal Current Problems in Cardiology by researcher Edward Archer, Ph.D. and several colleagues has pointed to serious flaws in the data the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) relies on to calculate the average number of calories that are present in the American diet.

The researchers looked at the number of calories the USDA says Americans consume and compared them with the number of calories people generally need to stay alive. Using data from 1971-2010, the researchers found that if the USDA data were correct, then a reference person (a hypothetical American established using algorithmic analysis of the data) would have lost nearly eighty pounds between 1971-1980 and also gained more than 215 lbs. between 1988-2010.

While such weight fluctuations aren't impossible, they're a rare occurrence at most.

If it were simply the case that the USDA compiled bad data, then there'd be little reason to express alarm. But it turns out the USDA uses these flawed data to inform and set federal dietary policy.

It's not just the data that's rotten. The laws and policies that are based on that data are inherently rotten, too.

The new research builds upon previous research by Archer, including a study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings last year, which found—as I wrote at the time—that the federal dietary guidelines "and the research used to support that work… is so off base as to be scientifically useless."

The new study doubles down on Archer's earlier work.

"These results demonstrate that the USDA's caloric data are meaningless and should not be used to inform public policy," Archer told me this week by email. Besides poking fatal holes in the federal dietary guidelines, Archer's research shows more broadly the perils of relying on bad data to inform law and policy.

Those who develop federal dietary guidelines are hardly alone in relying on incomplete, wayward, contradictory, or inconclusive data as the foundation for various food laws and policies. In fact, the push to adopt laws that seem to contravene what data tells us about those laws—namely, that they are uniformly bad ideas—continues headlong.

One recent example— menu calorie labeling—illustrates this point. A new study by NYU researchers reports that menu calorie labeling is a totally ineffective tool for helping consumers make lower-calorie food choices. That's just piling on. The fact that menu labeling doesn't achieve its goals is nothing new.

The data don't support it, yet mandatory calorie labeling is coming to chain restaurants, vending machines, and movie theaters (and, likely, grocery stores and pizza parlors) in every state in the land in mere months.

Data supporting soda taxes as a tool to combat obesity is virtually nonexistent. Yet cities proceed to adopt them.

The FDA's own data on the likely impact of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), as I detail in my new book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, shows these bad rules clearly aren't worth their enormous cost.

[T]he FDA's own estimates predict these rules could—if implemented to absolute perfection—reduce foodborne illnesses by a maximum of 1.23 million cases. That would represent just a 2.6 percent reduction in total foodborne illness cases. Again, this is the FDA's own best-case scenario for the impact of these two key rules.

Relying on bad data to justify food and dietary laws is as absurd, indefensible, and unscientific as it sounds. If we can't trust the government to base those food laws and policies that call for science on actual, you know, science, then maybe that's evidence the government should have far less power to craft those laws and policies in the first place.

NEXT: Supreme Court to Weigh in on Transgender Bathroom Panic

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  1. WOW! They had to do a study to determine the federal government cannot think? Grandma knew more about how to eat than the feds.

    1. She also probably knew enough not to trust the government.*

      *she didn’t vote for FDR, did she?

      1. I don’t know why it just hit me, my grandmother could have voted for Roosevelt. Both of them. (I don’t know that she ever voted in her life, probably been voting a straight Democrat ticket ever since she died.)

        1. Could your grandmother really have voted for Theodore Roosevelt?

          1. Can I get a narrowed gaze?

            1. I’m making over $12k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life. This is what I do… http://www.Trends88.Com

          2. If she lived in Chicago, sure.

            1. If she lived in Chicago, sure.

              Or died there as well.

          3. Yes, I really am that old. (My dad was in his mid-twenties when he was fighting in WW2.)

            1. Well, I guess not actually – since women didn’t have the vote yet. But she was born some time in the early 1890’s (she emigrated to the US in 1896 as a child and there’s some discrepancy in the record as to exactly how old she was.)

            2. My great-grandfather was an adult during the Civil War. I never met him of course- he was more than 100 years old when my mother was a small child in the late 40s. Still, there must be even larger generational gaps out there, as my grandfather fathered my mother when he was pretty young. It’s at least _possible_ (though not likely) that there is a child born today whose great-grandfather was alive during the revolutionary war. If I’ve done the math right, which I might not have.

              1. Side note: I’ve tried explaining to women twenty years my junior that since the men in my family often don’t settle down and start families until they hit their early seventies, if anything _they_ are a little too old for me. This has gone less well than I would have anticipated.

                I draw two conclusions from this: 1) young women are not very amenable to reason (drink), and 2) my great-granddad must have been sexy as hell, much more so than I am- regression toward the mean and all that. Oh, and 3) “Northern Exposure” was probably not based on a true story.

      2. Reagan voted for FDR four times.

        1. *sniff*


        2. Reagan was a Democrat before he was a Republican.

          FDR was a god to most back then. If someone found out Reagan voted for someone other than FDR, he might have lost acting gigs.
          ‘He may be the patron saint of limited government, but Ronald Reagan started out as a registered Democrat and New Deal supporter. An F.D.R. fan, the Gipper campaigned for Helen Gahagan Douglas in her fruitless 1950 Senate race against Richard Nixon and encouraged Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for President as a Democrat in 1952. While he was working as a spokesman for General Electric, however, his views shifted right. “Under the tousled boyish haircut,” he wrote Vice President Nixon of John F. Kennedy in 1960, “is still old Karl Marx.” By the time it actually happened in 1962, Reagan’s decision to cross over to the GOP didn’t come as much of a surprise. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” he famously said. “The party left me.” ‘
          -Time article

      3. Heh. Grandma adored FDR. She was also the treasurer of the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

    2. My granny hated FDR with the burning fire of a thousand suns. She only managed to secrete a portion of her gold bullion and coins before the confiscation. The only time I ever heard her swear when she was talking about that “god damned fascist son of a whore”.

  2. The laws and policies that are based on that data are inherently rotten, too.

    Now, wait a minute. Those laws and policies were put in place with the best of intentions. We can’t scrap them; that would be unfair to the legislators and regulators who crafted them.

    1. Government is a safe space where people of ego can implement self-serving policies without fear of rejection from an ovine populace.

  3. While such weight fluctuations aren’t impossible, they’re a rare occurrence at most.

    I gained nearly 200 pounds between 1960 and 1978. I’ll bet almost all people have had similar periods of weight gain.

    1. Me, too, although it was 180 pounds from 1962 – 1984.

      1. What a bunch of old fogies.

    2. I only managed to gain 90.

      1. LOSER!!!!

  4. If a private company had produced and marketed the old food pyramid, the lawyers would be drooling over the zillions of dollars of damages they could sue for.

    1. If I recall correctly a consortium of private companies did craft it and then paid off the USDA officials to implement it. I am too lazy to look it up but I think Linnekin did write an article about it after the proof came to light.

      Those companies would never have been able to pull that shit off had the USDA not been available for them to use as a cudgel.

      1. Kind of like “Doctor Recommended Cigarrettes.”

        1. They do help with weight loss.

  5. Let me be the first to go off topic:

    Despite the tweets from Reich and Krugman about the FBI comments on emails, Comey has done Hillary a tremendous favor. With 9 days still left in the campaign, she has time to gracefully withdraw from the race rather than being impeached after taking office.

    1. Let me be second:

      Dominika Cibulkov? is amazing to watch. She just needs to wear outfits that hug her body more.

    2. I’m thinking a long drawn out impeachment will stop both sides from doing any more damage to this county.

      1. *Your* county, and that’s it? What a selfish bastard you are!

    3. Wishful thinking on both fronts.

      1. Yeah there’s nothing doing. Chance of classified info being (1) in the email batch and (2) so classified that they can’t come up w some bullshit defense is so low as to be 0. Comey is just covering his ass.

        1. Huma forwarded a shit load of email to her privateaccount, and lied about it under oath. That kills any immunity deal, and the odds that none of them were classified is very low. Any new classified email, and it will be very hard to sweep under the rug. Comey shot his wad covering up for them already.

          I’m moderately optimistic there will be consequences.

          1. Comey shot his wad covering up for them already.

            As did Wiener. Repeatedly.

            1. Cumey Weiner. Ugh, what a mess…got a tissue?

          2. It would be… ironic, if HC is brought down by that stoopid Weiner.

            Personally, I don’t expect much.

            1. Weiners are always to blame for destroying pussy, so….

          3. Your moderate optimism is far too optimistic.

        2. I’m pretty sure they just need to hand out a few more immunities to ensure that no one actually goes to jail or gets punished for committing multiple felonies and then fervently covering it up after being federally subpoenaed. I suspect there’s a bit in there about helping to cover up the fact that the POTUS was interacting and may have known about the private servers.

  6. What does the USDA think about transgender bathrooms for farm animals?

    1. All cattle dressed as clowns will be shot on sight.

    2. And all transgendered bulls must be allowed in the milking barn.

      1. As a city kid, now I know why that “incident” from my youth1 didn’t go so well.

        1. So,you got ‘creamed ‘?

        2. Words of experience from my Grandpa, “hey kid, don’t stick your dick in the milking machine”.

    3. Peruse Gilmore’s comments from last night (forcing people to abandon the objective for the subjective; to comply) and check out Heroic’s link and I think you will have your answer.

      Heroic’s link:

      1. Solzhenitsyn wrote much the same thing about why the Soviet regime made up such outrageous lies.

        1. It also answers my former naive puzzlement about why all totalitarians spout such absurd bullshit ( Chavez claiming the CIA shot him with a cancer ray from space).

          1. A lie will travel the world before the truth gets it’s boots on. I’m thinking chicken stir fry with fried rice tonight.

    1. +1 Generalissimeow

    2. “”””He likes to dress up in his official uniform for Halloween.”””

      Seeing his expression, I would say that he does not like being dressed up.

      1. What cat does like being dressed up?

      2. If I tried that on my cat I’d walk away a bloody mess.

  7. One visit to a government run cafeteria will show you what the government knows about food.

    1. Sally Struthers approves this message.

  8. I’ve just had a gout flare up and I now see that The Overlords must save me from myself.

    Since the old “tree bark and rain water” diet is forbidden (trees are our carbon scrubbers and it is illegal to interfere with water-shedding) what IS the new diet? I’ll buy into the “centipede” thing if I’m stitched in behind Sarah Hyland.

    1. The Oxalate Nazi says, “No is slated for you!”

    2. I’m a Emily Bettt Rickards guy myself.

    3. I’ll buy into the “centipede” thing if I’m stitched in behind Sarah Hyland.

      A) You are sick, sick man, on MULTIPLE levels (read: 100 of them) for this comment alone;

      B) With your luck, your “centipede” experiences will be something more like this

      Trigger Warning: David Cronenberg and William S. Burroughs.

      1. There’s two things wrong with the title of that movie.

  9. My friends on the left are very quiet

    1. Its pretty hard to defend someone with 2 FBI investigations. Only the diehard Hillary supporters will be able to defend this without batting an eyelash.

      1. I went camping with a group of friends a couple of weeks back (one other libertarian, the other three serious lefties). We mostly do good-natured jabs at each other, rarely getting too political, as outside of the politics, we get along very well and always enjoy our annual camping excursion.

        But when I was driving the car with everyone in it, one of the guys, who seems to have no depth to his views (as he just repeatedly spews the MSNBC talking points word-for-word) said Hillary’s emails were no big deal, and that Colin Powell and Condi Rice had done the exact same thing. I almost slammed on the brakes and made a very rare break from the politeness. No, I said (loudly), neither Powell nor Rice had a private server hidden away to avoid scrutiny of their emails, that’s a huge issue. He responded that the two had private email accounts, and that was the same thing.

        He really couldn’t understand that having a separate Gmail account from your government email wasn’t the same thing as a secret server that avoided any scrutiny, especially since with the private server all email could be destroyed (unlike a typical public email account).

        I took a few deep breaths, and decided there was no benefit to trying to convince someone so into the Hillary kool-aid. Fortunately, we pulled over at a bar a few minutes later, and were able to change the topic to IPAs.

    2. Mine are not. They’re all over Facebook squealing their outrage at their erstwhile hero. It’s delightful.

  10. Data don’t matter.

    Power and Control matters.

    And don’t forget keeping small guys out of the market. Crony capitalism.

  11. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail,,,,,,,

  12. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail,,,,,,,

  13. …and the beat goes on…

  14. However good or bad the data, the core flaw is the assumption that people have will power sufficient to change anything aggregately given their environment.

    The only way to make America less fat is to alter the supply of fattening agents such as complex carbs and reconstruct communities to encourage more walking and less driving.

    1. The only way to make America less fat is to alter the supply of fattening agents such as complex carbs and reconstruct communities to encourage more walking and less driving.

      Fuck that! You owe me a free stomach staple, free lipo, and free bike paths.

      Why? (I’ll give you three guesses.)

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