Sustainability is central to the scope of dietary guidelines

The House Agriculture Committee will hold a hearing Oct. 7 to question Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans now being formulated. In scheduling the hearing, Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) reiterated the concern of many members of Congress that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee (DGAC) “greatly exceeded its scope with its February 2015 report by straying from traditional nutritional recommendations” and considering sustainability in its February 2015 report intended to inform the new guidelines.

{mosads}For years, nutritionists and medical professionals have recommended that Americans increase their seafood consumption by a factor of two- to threefold above current levels. The American Diabetes Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Heart Association and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists all recommend weekly fish consumption as part of a healthy diet, consistent with DGAC recommendations. The many lines of evidence are all linked to the basic premise that regular consumption of a variety of traditionally produced seafood delivers a uniquely rich package of nutrients known to support health from head to toe and throughout the life cycle.

The question is: Where is this seafood to come from?

The dramatic increase in seafood consumption that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines call for is at apparent odds with the flat supply of seafood from the oceans. The wild catch has not increased since 1990, and has only stabilized thanks to serious U.S. and global conservation efforts. World aquaculture production (“fish farming”) has increased dramatically to fill the void, but what of the quality of the product?

The nutrition evidence that supports the consumption of seafood depends on its net nutrient composition being maintained at historical levels, as well as the absence of contaminants and extraneous material such as excess nonessential fat. Food production, and specifically the maintenance of any particular food’s nutritional quality, are inextricably linked.

Critically, nutrients in farmed fish, as all animals, depend on details of production and on feed composition. Fish depleted in omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, iodine and vitamin D, and fattened solely on unfortified grains, are not as healthy as those with nutrient profiles aligned with the wild catch. For instance, farmed catfish with one quarter the omega-3 fatty acids as wild catfish are unlikely to be as healthy as farmed catfish with omega-3s similar to wild catfish. Healthy food delivers more than just protein and calories.

Aquaculture is spawning a rapidly expanding, innovative industry domestically and internationally in feed and fish production to maintain and enhance quality while improving efficiency. Good industry actors produce seafood with low contaminants while maintaining or even enhancing nutrient levels, such as found in most farmed salmon. Government encouragement of responsible food production to build and maintain the health of Americans is at least as important as its more apparent roles, such as maintaining building construction codes so our buildings don’t collapse.

In the context of sustainability, the 2015 DGAC report expressly recommends that the nutrient profiles of farmed seafood match that of the corresponding species in the wild. This general principle should apply to all animal food production. Policymakers should embrace and support the best food producers, dedicated to maintaining nutrient quality in the face of price pressure.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, most recently reauthorized in 2006, points out that “fish … constitute a valuable and renewable natural resource … contribut[ing] to the food supply, economy, and health of the Nation.” In other words, Congress has found that sustainability of the wild catch contributes to the nutritional well-being of Americans. The House Agriculture committee should understand that sustainable production of nutritious food is central to diet and nutrient intake, and embrace protection of the nutritional quality of the food supply on which diet recommendations are based.

Brenna is a professor of human nutrition and of chemistry at Cornell University. He was a member of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

Tags 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee Department of Agriculture Department of Health and Human Services dietary guidelines HHS House Agriculture Committee Mike Conaway Sylvia Burwell Tom Vilsack
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