Nutrition Planning

Dr. Pasour is Professor of Economics at North Carolina State University at Raleigh.

To forge an effective food policy we will need to . . . determine what people’s nutritional needs are and what levels and types of production are necessary to meet those needs. This will require an ability to translate nutritional needs into production terms…. A new food policy must reassess which areas of agriculture are supported and promoted. In the future, the basis of such decisions must be to meet nutrition and trade needs. This will necessarily involve a reorientation of production patterns. (From a speech by Carol Tucker Foreman, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture).

These statements were made at the opening session of the 1977 USDA Food and Agricultural Outlook Conference. The implications of this proposed bold new food policy are far reaching and have received little attention in the press and even less by policy analysts. It should be stressed that Foreman’s comments do not represent an aberration of Administration policy but appear to be fully subscribed to by Secretary of Agriculture Bergland:

We intend through our research to build a constructive nutrition program from the facts . . . We want to know how much animal fat, how much sugar, how many eggs it’s wise for a person to eat. Then we’re going to build a new farm policy based on these truths.

The full implications of the policy approach visualized is apparently not recognized even by the proponents. The idea that the USDA or any other agency can determine our dietary needs and then reorient production to assure that these dietary requirements are met represents misplaced hubris in a country where consumer sovereignty holds sway. The proposed policy faces three critical shortcomings—information problems, restrictions on individual choice, and the planner’s illusion.

Information Problems

The first step in the proposed policy is to determine the components of a proper diet, i.e., determine "people’s nutritional needs." Even this first step, however, is fraught with difficulties. There is a great deal of controversy among nutrition experts both about the state of current diets and about the effects of various proposals to alter these diets.

Concern about current diets was manifested in the widely publicized report of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. Gilbert Leveille, Chairman of the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at Michigan State University disagrees with the thrust of this report and other allegations about the quality of the U.S. diet.

The American diet today is better than ever before and is one of the best, if not the best in the world today. . . . We have virtually eliminated morbidity and mortality from acute nutritional deficiencies (Leveille cites pellagra, rickets, and goiter as examples). . . . We have seen a remarkable increase in the life expectancy of the American population. We have seen many improvements in the quality of our food supply as measured by its safety, wholesomeness and variety, it is unparalleled in the world today. (Speech presented at USDA Outlook Conference, November, 1977)

Dietary Goals

The lack of consensus by nutrition experts on the effects of dietary modification is illustrated by the set of dietary goals proposed in 1977 by the Senate Select Committee. A reduction in overall fat "from approximately 40 percent to about 30 percent of energy intake" was among the dietary goals proposed. Leveille contends that the case against animal fats as a cause of heart disease is unproven and that the goal of substituting polyunsaturated fatty acids for saturated fat consumption represents "a risk which has yet to be fully evaluated." Leveille also disagrees with the committee’s goal concerning reductions in salt and sugar intake as well as the proposed goal involving a shift from foods of animal origin to those of plant origin. These examples illustrate the disagreement among nutritionists as to the potential impact of specific dietary changes.

Another problem in determining proper diets is that tolerances and requirements for specific nutrients and foods vary widely between individuals. The Senate Select Committee, for example, recommended a reduction in salt use as a means of reducing the incidence of hypertension. However, there is no consensus among nutritionists as to the proportion of the population whose blood pressure would be influenced by salt intake. As Leveille states:

It should also be recognized that not all hypertensions will respond to a reduction in salt intake. Further, virtually all professionals examining the dietary goals of the Select Committee are in agreement that the recommended level of salt intake of three grams per day is excessively low and represents a level which is not achievable.

The goals developed by the Senate Select Committee imply that nutrition goals have not been important in the U.S. because we have had no "nutrition plan." However, there have long been diet guidelines in the form of Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA’s) initially established by the National Research Council in 1941 (and periodically revised). These RDA’s represent an attempt to meet the dietary requirements of "virtually the entire population" and are subject to the problem that tolerances and requirements vary widely between individuals. Assuming the RDA’s are known, these data along with information on nutrients and prices of various fruits, vegetables, and meats enable individual consumers to meet the RDA’s in a variety of ways depending upon individual tastes and current prices. The following discussion demonstrates that the best diet for an individual consumer cannot be determined solely on the basis of RDA’s.

The idea of a "national diet" assumes away problems associated with individual differences. Even if nutrition experts were able to agree on the components of a well balanced diet, different nutrient requirements can be satisfied in a variety of ways. Protein, for example, can be obtained from various meats as well as from peas and other vegetables. Similarly, virtually all nutritional requirements can be met from a range of foods. Thus, mere knowledge of nutritional requirements reveals little information about which specific foods will be chosen by individuals to consume to meet these requirements since food consumption by individuals is heavily influenced by individual taste as well as by nutrient availability. The most reliable information we have about people’s food preferences is revealed through their market choices.

Restrictions on Individual Choice

In a free society, welfare is defined in terms of the welfare of individuals. This individualistic approach assumes that the individual consumer is the best judge of his own welfare. The individualistic ethic implies free choice of diet.

Free consumer choice presents an insurmountable obstacle for any policy which attempts to base agricultural production policy on individual diets. Dietary requirements, as suggested above, can be met in a variety of ways. That is, RDA’s of various nutrients can be obtained from a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and meats consumed in many different combinations. Individuals, based on their tastes and preferences and market prices, will choose widely different combinations of goods to satisfy specific nutritional goals. This poses several problems for planners attempting to base agricultural policy on nutrition facts. First, there is no way for the nutrition planner to determine how much of which foods everyone in the country should eat. Second, when allowances are made for differences in individual tastes, and the wide range of ways in which various foods are eaten, "nutrition facts" provide little guidance concerning which foods to promote through public policy. Third, the proposed approach ignores political realities which will inevitably arise when congressional action is taken to reduce beef, tobacco or peanut consumption.

The idea of basing levels and types of agricultural production on nutritional needs ("translating nutritional needs into production terms") can only be successful if there is a way of insuring that the nutrition plan is implemented. Thus, to successfully translate nutritional needs into production terms, the Foreman-Bergland plan must determine which foods constitute the "national diet," the amounts required of those foods, and then ensure that those foods are produced and consumed—it must dictate individual diets.

The Planner’s Illusion

Secretary Bergland has stated that the "USDA does not intend to dictate diets for the people." However, the USDA has been noticeably silent as to how nutritional needs will be translated into production terms so as to meet "nutrition and trade needs."

Nutrition planning faces the same limitations as other forms of central planning. The idea that a central planner can determine a nutrition policy based on nutritional requirements and then develop a food policy based on these requirements is an example of what Professor Hayek calls "scientism"—the extension of scientific techniques and methods applicable in natural sciences beyond their proper boundaries to include all human activity. In the present context, there is a basic difference between nutrition planning for livestock and for people.

The concept of nutrition planning is being successfully applied in feeding livestock. Mathematical programming techniques are used to formulate least cost diets for cattle, broilers, hogs, and so on. The animal scientist can provide information on nutrient requirements for various classes of livestock and feed specialists have information on nutrients provided from various feed sources including corn, oats, wheat, protein supplements, and the like. Given data on nutrient requirements, nutrient availability from various feed sources, and market prices of the product and various feeds, the least cost diet is reduced by a mathematical problem which can be rapidly solved by electronic computer.

The analogy between formulating least-cost livestock rations and planning human diets, however, quickly breaks down. Most people would insist that palatability considerations are much more important in the diets of people. Furthermore, allowances for individual variation in tastes and preferences in human diets are crucially important in all but the most totalitarian of human societies.

If consumer choice is deemed to be important, there is no way for the nutrition planner to determine optimal diets for individuals. If the planner were given data on consumer tastes, prices, and nutrient requirements, nutrition planning is reduced to a mathematical problem and nutrition planning is possible. These data are, of course, not given to the planner. Furthermore, no alternative to the price system has been discovered as a way of coordinating and transmitting information concerning individual tastes and preferences from consumers to producers (or planners as Hayek demonstrated 40 years ago). Rational nutrition planning of the type visualized is impossible in the same sense that central economic planning is impossible—it is not consistent with the aim which it is intended to serve. There is no way to successfully "translate nutritional needs into production terms" while maintaining individual freedom of choice.

The Variability of Needs

Despite the seemingly obvious problems of nutrition planning, the illusion that central planners can plan production for consumers more efficiently than the market dies hard. Unless individual freedom and choice are ignored, human action cannot be planned and predicted in the same way as phenomena in the natural sciences. The idea that the planner can obtain enough information on nutritional requirements, individual tastes, production requirements, trade flows, and the like, in such a way as to determine "what levels and types of production are necessary to meet those needs" represents an illusion which has much potential for mischief even though it is incapable of achievement.

Government policies can surely affect the pattern of agricultural production. However, there can be no assurance that a change in production of particular crops will have the desired effect on diet. For example, corn can be processed and consumed (among other ways) in the form of canned corn or in the form of sweetened breakfast cereal. Many nutritionists would favor an increase in consumption of the former and a decrease in consumption of the latter. A policy of subsidizing corn production, however, might be expected to reduce the price and increase consumption of all corn products. Similarly, the dietary implications of increasing production and consumption of potatoes, wheat and many other products are ambiguous.

It seems obvious that Draconian measures would have to be used to achieve the kinds of dietary changes envisaged by Ms. Foreman. How, for example, would the regulator limit the use of salt? By prohibiting the use of salt on potato chips, french fries, peanuts, and so forth? By limiting the consumption of these products? Or, by selling salt on a prescription basis?

How is the use of sugar to be reduced? By limiting the use of sugar in cereal, candy, cake, and so on? Or, by limiting the consumption of these products? The amount of regulation involved in ensuring that dietary goals are achieved is staggering to contemplate.

Even if there were no other problems, political implementation of a nutrition plan would be a formidable obstacle. Policy is inextricably involved with politics and political considerations will impinge on the decision-making process at all levels. This was clearly demonstrated during 1978 by the widely divergent attitudes of various government officials in the Carter Administration toward the tobacco price support program. Conflicts are inevitable given the different constituencies of HEW, USDA and other government agencies. Thus, "nutrition planning" as a basis for policy faces formidable political as well as economic barriers.

The Problem Persists

In view of these seemingly insurmountable political and economic problems involved in nutrition planning, why have these problems been largely ignored by public officials? The illusion of the planner is nothing new and was clearly foreseen by Adam Smith 200 years ago:

The man of system . . . seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board; he does not consider that the pieces upon the chessboard have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chessboard of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. (A. Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments).

The illusion of central planners today appears remarkably similar to that held by Smith’s "man of system" 200 years ago.


The need for diet information is obvious. In developing sound dietary practices, consumers need information on dietary requirements as well as nutrients available from various foods. The question is not one of whether diets will be planned but rather of who will plan individual diets.

Nutrition planning is but one example of central planning. The problems of "translating nutritional needs into production terms" are fundamentally the same as those identified in the "market socialism" debate of the 1930s. Information problems are quite as troublesome in nutrition planning as in other types of central planning. The individualistic ethic means that individual diets must vary according to individual tastes. The nutrition planner has no way of determining a priori how individuals will respond to nutrition information.

There is a vast difference between providing dietary information to consumers and "nutrition planning" in the sense of attempting to reorient agricultural production based on a national dietary plan. If only diet information is provided to individuals, there can be no assurance which foods will be chosen to meet various dietary requirements and, consequently, how much of various foods will be consumed. Knowledge of how to "reorient production patterns" so as to "meet nutrition and trade needs" requires information on amounts of various foods which will be consumed, sold in the international market, and imported.

The quantity of a food consumed, produced, imported, or exported hinges to a large extent on price. Thus, "translating nutritional needs into production terms" means that the planner must be able to control price not only of food produced domestically, but also of food imports. The amount of information required to implement such a plan staggers the imagination. Even if the planner could obtain the required information, changes in supply and demand conditions would quickly make the plan obsolete. Comprehensive nutrition planning is possible in the sense that dietary goals can be proposed and production and consumption patterns can be altered by government subsidies. However, short of dictating individual diets, nutrition planning is incapable of achieving the stated goal of building a new food policy based on nutrition facts.

Further Reading