A Dietetic Intern’s Takeaways from the National Food Policy Conference

By Emily Glass

food policy

On March 28th and 29th, the Consumer Federation of America hosted the 41st annual National Food Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. In the weeks leading up to the event, I read the program over and over again each time getting more excited. One of the things that drew me toward a career as a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) is that there are countless career paths I can take. I was eager to learn about yet another area where an RDN could play an important role.

This premiere event provided an opportunity to hear from the key players and policy makers in the food policy world. Over 300 people from across the country gathered for this unique forum to discuss and give insight on key issues related to consumers, the food industry and government. The diverse attendees were made up of consumer advocates, representatives from food industry, government, academics, RDNs, graduate students, and law students.

Throughout the two days I learned more than I could have ever imagined. I gained valuable insight on how the food policy world operates and what it takes to have a role in developing successful policy. Discussions included the importance of nutrition assistance programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the farm bill, and the FDA’s new nutrition strategy. Among everything discussed, there were two themes that came up multiple times that stood out to me as a place where an RDN could have a major impact.

  1. Transparency

If there was one main overarching theme of the conference, it would be transparency. Transparency on food labels, in food processing, from reporters and even from policy makers. Consumers want to know the details and are more than ever likely to ask questions. They want to know what is in their food and how their food is produced. By knowing these details, they are then able to make their own decisions on what they want to put in their bodies.

In one of the breakout sessions, a panel further discussed the consumers desire for transparency with the newly popular “clean label.” Although the definition is not regulated and allows each company to determine their own criteria, clean label generally means a product has simple, real ingredients. The panel was made up of three leaders in the nutrition industry: Lisa Lefferts (Senior Scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest), Katie Kriegshauser (Nutrition Manager at Panera Bread) and Catherine Adams Hutt (RdR Solutions).

panera clean label

 Panera Breads adaptation of clean label to all of their menu items

With this push for clean label products and transparency, an increasing number of companies are removing artificial flavoring, coloring, preservatives, and other chemicals from the foods they sell. But is it important to realize, just because a product is clean label, does not mean it is necessarily healthy. Clean label does not address the amount or types of fats or added sugars. The need and desire for transparency is an important topic for an RDN to be aware of and able to address. For a clinical RDN, just telling a patient what to eat may not be enough. Sometimes it is important to provide details and evidence to back up decisions and recommendations.

  1. Science-based policy

During a time with news readily available at our fingertips, it is even more important that policy and reporting be solely based on science and fact. On the first day of the conference, a group of reporters discussed the many challenges in providing stories that are accurate, free from bias, and are based on science. As we begin to get closer to the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans coming out in 2020, this need is even more relevant.

Bruce Lee (Associate Professor of International Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health), Allison Steiber (Chief Science Officer at Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics), Dariush Mozaffarian (Dean of the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University) and Betsy Booren (Senior Policy Advisor at Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz PC) gathered to discuss and offer valuable insight to the new guidelines. Among areas of discussion was the timeline of the guidelines. With new guidelines coming out every 5 years, it becomes very difficult to nearly impossible to have new research to back up possible changes. The panel considered the idea of changing the guideline to every 10 years with a small changes being address every 5 years. This would ensure that the guidelines have hard science to behind them.

dg pannelPanelists discussing their opinions and raising concerns for the 2020 dietary guidelines.

In addition, many of the panelists agreed that the guidelines may be too broad for the general population or for a practicing nutrition professional to use. For example, Dr. Mozaffarian hopes to see a shift from just giving a recommendation on the amount of fat to breaking it down further to discuss healthy vs. unhealthy sources of fat. Another panelist pointed out that policy makers are not the one using the guidelines everyday in practice making it difficult to know what is practical and what is not. The RDN is the expert who is translating the recommendations from the dietary guidelines into information the general public can understand. It necessary that the RDN discusses their concerns with the dietary guidelines to ensure key concerns are address and the information can easily be used in practice.

When I walked into the conference, I had no idea what to expect. As distinguished food policy leaders gave their presentations and sparked discussion, I gained valuable insight on the direction that food and nutrition are headed in the future. The diverse backgrounds of the speakers and attendees allowed for well-rounded discussions on science, food, consumers, the Farm Bill, food assistance programs, and technology. Through my intellectual conversations with policy writers, academic professors and food lawyers, I saw how important an RDN is in advocating for sound food policy. Whether in food service, community, clinical or policy, the RDN is the nutrition expert. With policy makers shifting their attention to address nutrition concerns, RDNs have the ability to speak up and provide valuable insight. As I left the conference, I felt empowered with yet another possible career path to explore as an RDN.

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