A short time ago, the National Institutes of Health 2025 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee held its second public meeting to discuss recommended changes. It was very authoritative, they said they were concerned about cancer and chemicals and obesity and they assured us they were looking at all of the new literature. The panel signaled it wants to go after Frappuccinos and aspartame. The problem is that none of those issues are why they were created.

The mandate of the group historically is to inform the public about a healthy, achievable diet, not to pick winners and losers in food companies. Instead of sensible food advice on portions as we once had, today we have a government 'food pyramid' that only five percent of the US can maintain. More of that doesn't help anyone. We need practical recommendations, but the panel tasked with updating nutritional guidelines delivered aspirational goals. American parents don't need a life coach, we need a group that will provide sensible information, not promote fads like the Mediterranean Diet or invoke wellness terms such as ultra-processed foods using suspect correlation.

Food is food. All food is processed yet at the turn of the century some cultural evangelists wanted to discourage packaged foods, so they called them "processed" in ominous tones. It had no scientific or logical foundation. The simplest foods are processed. We don't eat wheat out of the ground, we eat bread that is made from flour that is processed in a mill. The public remained unconvinced that a butcher cutting a steak, a processed food made by combining water and grain in a living engine, was even more harmful if he wrapped it in paper, so then we got concerns about "ultra-processed" foods - UPFs.

Jamie Oliver is the poster child for fetishizing process. He once said parents who packed lunches for school with "processed" foods were committing child abuse. He's certainly not along. Elite chefs are invariably left wing because they want to dictate choice - organic, vegetarian, etc. Photo Andy Butterton/PA Archive via The Conversation

It has no definition. To make it sound like science they suggested a UPF is things with added ingredients, which is so broad it covers nearly everything that isn't a raw organic vegetable. To provide a rule-of-thumb they say if you can't pronounce it, it should not be in your food. Except everything is a chemical, and chemical names are often difficult to pronounce.

If you're reading this at breakfast, UPF belief says you shouldn’t put 1,3,7-Trimethylpurine-2,6-dione and ethylenecarboxamide in your mouth because the words are difficult to get out of it. Even more worrisome, those chemicals are harmful to rats in high doses. Yet California, where groups once tried to ban golf and Happy Meals, doesn't ban that product which we call coffee, despite it being one of the most processed foods in the world. The International Agency for Research on Cancer even took coffee off of its concern list in their last monograph.

If we end up with another document so strict that only five percent of the public can hope to achieve it, the societal results could be even worse because by reducing the dinner table to a periodic table, we are losing a powerful tool for fostering a healthy population. When people are told food is only the sum of its nutrients, there is no reason to sit together as a family, or to go out in groups. Yet we all know dinner is often not just about food. It is a communal ritual that has existed since humans began to gather. It helps us settle our differences, it teaches tolerance for the beliefs of others, it fosters communication.

It teaches the next generation how to behave in public.

Dinner is not just nutrients, it is time spent. Both food and time involve generosity. The slang term “spread” for a meal connotes sharing. Dietary guidelines that focus on products a panel wants to see banned are a missed chance to bring the cultures of people from the 150 nations that live in America together. Konrad Adenauer said, “We all live under the same sky, but we don't all have the same horizon” and the same is true of food.

Yes, all food contains common ingredients but that does not mean our meals should be reduced to their chemical inputs.