Cereals on Shelf
© AP Photo/Candice Choi
When President Eisenhower left office in 1961, over 70% of Americans trusted the Federal Government. That figure plummeted to less than 20% by the time President Obama exited in 2017. Pundits offer myriad reasons for the decline, but the answer is simple: Americans are tired of lies. Over the past 60 years, we learned that the moving lips of a politician meant that he or she was either eating or deceiving.

In contrast, public confidence in the 'scientific community' runs at 40% and has remained stable since the 1970s. This trust, however, turns out to be seriously misplaced when it comes to the government's data on what we eat and drink. The nutrition research methods of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are based on the naïve but politically expedient notion that a person's usual diet can be measured simply by asking what he or she remembered eating and drinking. Only the most gullible citizens would believe the answers yield anything close to the truth, but government agencies selectively slice-and-dice these anecdotal data to support political agendas, control the U.S. food economy, and indirectly determine what you can and cannot eat and drink.

For example, after the USDA began its "5-A-Day" campaign to convince Americans to buy more fruits and vegetables, the CDC began pushing the boundary of honesty by instructing survey respondents to exclude fried potatoes from their dietary reports. The CDC then declared that only "100% PURE fruit juices" were "acceptable" and instructed survey respondents to exclude drinks with less than 100% juice. Given that French fries and potato chips are in fact vegetables that provide essential nutrients, and beverages containing any percentage of fruit juice contain fruit, the CDC's methods are questionable at best. Nevertheless, this data manipulation allowed the CDC, USDA, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to claim Americans were not consuming enough fruits and vegetables, and therefore were at risk for a host of diseases.

In short, the Federal Government manipulates dietary data to scare Americans and then nag us into buying "acceptable" foods and beverages from politically-favored companies. This is a classic example of 'policy-based evidence-making' in which the political agenda determines the data 'fed' to the public. This unscientific process explains a large part of the apathy, skepticism, and scorn that meet each rendition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Nevertheless, the D.C. 'Nutrition Swamp' continue to create an army of dieticians, celebrities, journalists, government researchers and public health advocates who dutifully believe the manufactured dietary data are valid. These evangelists use the demonstrably false data and other flawed methods to mislead Americans about their diets. And to make matters worse, misguided public servants continue to propose quack dietary recommendations (e.g., decreased salt consumption) and ill-advised policy interventions such as taxes, bans, and subsidies based on nothing more than "meaningless" data served with a large side of gullibility.

The nutrition community is slowly acknowledging that their memory-based methods are invalid and should not be used to estimate the number of calories people consume each day. In fact, an increasing number of researchers now consider all the Federal Government's dietary data to be little more than "meaningless numbers". As such, we recently challenged the CDC's use of "physiologically implausible" calorie data in their publications. Their response was that even though the data were invalid, the CDC could still publish a "percentage" of the total calories, and not be in (legal) violation of the Data Quality Act and the Information Quality Act (DQA & IQA). This means that the Federal Government (specifically the National Center for Health Statistics) believes that a percentage of an invalid number is a valid number. We can only guess at the logic and skills these bureaucrats possess to arrive at that conclusion.

The DQA & IQA were explicitly designed to prevent the dissemination of duplicitous data by Federal Agencies. Yet when we contacted our senators and other legislators, we received either no response or 'form-letters' directing us to the CDC's webpage for advice on "eating more fruits and vegetables".

Americans are tired of being fed lies about the healthfulness of their food and the never-ending disease-mongering of their diets. Yet, it is sadly apparent that the Federal Government shows little interest in cleaning-up its data collection or reining-in the USDA, CDC, and FDA's scientifically illiterate nutrition politics.

Scientists should take note. If not, nutrition's scientific community will soon be viewed as charlatans on par with politicians.

Edward Archer is computational physiologist currently serving as chief science officer at EvolvingFX, a data analytics company. Michael L. Marlow is professor of economics and distinguished scholar at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.