Dairy has been a significant part of the USDA’s dietary guidelines for decades.
But dairy is not an uncontroversial category as part of government recommendations, especially when those recommendations have wide ramifications, as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) do. In response, a group of doctors associated with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have sued the USDA, claiming that the department’s push for dairy is not in line with current understanding of nutrition, and is instead designed to promote the American dairy industry.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a nonprofit advocacy group focused on promoting plant-based diets and animal welfare—neither of which are exactly extreme positions, but which explain some of the motivation for the lawsuit. Regardless, though, the presence of dairy in the DGA has been the subject of debate for a while now.
The National Dairy Council was a significant player in the early days of the US Public Health Service, providing milk to schools and releasing pamphlets promoting the idea that milk is a vital part of childhood nutrition. Milk is, in fact, a pretty nutrient-dense food, but there’s nothing exactly unique about it; all of the nutrients in milk are perfectly available in other sources.
In the most recent DGA, the USDA does allow for slight flexibility in its dairy suggestions, permitting “fortified soy beverages” as an alternative. From the current DGA:
“Healthy dietary patterns feature dairy, including fat-free and low-fat (1%) milk, yogurt, and cheese. Individuals who are lactose intolerant can choose low-lactose and lactose-free dairy products. For individuals who choose dairy alternatives, fortified soy beverages (commonly known as “soy milk”) and soy yogurt—which are fortified with calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D—are included as part of the dairy group because they are similar to milk and yogurt based on nutrient composition and in their use in meals.”
But having dairy, or a non-dairy alternative that the USDA deems most similar to milk, is still a building block of the DGA’s recommendations. And those recommendations carry huge weight: Schools are required to offer dairy, and will offer non-dairy alternatives, but those alternatives are only available to those who bring a doctor’s note explaining lactose intolerance, reports the Washington Post. The milk industry loves this requirement: It makes it harder for kids to get milk alternatives, both by requiring a doctor’s note and by requiring that the milk alternative be extremely similar to milk in nutritional makeup.
And that’s a problem, because, according to the National Institutes of Health, about 36 percent of Americans have “lactose malabsorption,” the reduced ability to digest lactose. Roughly 25 percent are lactose intolerant, meaning that consuming lactose actively causes digestive problems. And, as is well documented, the populations that are least likely to be lactose intolerant are those of European, especially northern European, descent—white people. The figures of lactose intolerance for Black, East and South Asian and Native American populations are far higher, with the majority being lactose intolerant. This adds a concerning racial element to dairy requirements.
The lawsuit demands that “dairy promotions” be removed from the DGA, and it also throws in some requirements that the DGA include vegetarian protein options such as beans. (As for that latter requirement, the DGA does recommend legumes and pulses, but in much lower quantities than lean meats.)