Ever wondered about the history of the Food Pyramid? HoneyColony takes an investigative look at how the Ag Industry has (negatively) influenced our diet.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stopped — and then stuttered. The Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services had just released the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans at a press conference in January 2011. Marian Burros, the former New York Times food columnist, stood up to mention how the original 1977 guidelines had advised consumers to eat less meat, and then asked why the latest draft barely mentioned the food group.
Vilsack slogged through a meandering non-answer, which Burros countered bluntly: “You didn’t answer my question.” A current of tension shot through the air of the closed, stuffy room full of policy wonks and nutritionists. “Why don’t you specifically say, ‘Eat less meat’? Why not?”
Visibly irritated, Vilsack gave an unnerving non-response: “When the guidelines suggest eating more fish and seafood,” he said, “it’s a way of saying what you’re saying.”
Vagaries and confusion are common complaints voiced by health experts about the dietary guidelines. And, to be fair, while the official national health guidelines aren’t generally read by the average eater, they do form the backbone of important health initiatives such as the now-defunct food pyramid and its latest incarnation, MyPlate. What Vilsack had adeptly sidestepped during the testy exchange with NYT columnist Marion Burros was this central, immutable fact: the agricultural industry’s well-documented history of influence on the guidelines and food pyramid.
How Big Ag Controls My Plate
“The pervasive, overriding influence of the meat and dairy lobby at the USDA is so powerful that it is understood that guidelines cannot talk negatively about specific foods,” says Walter Willett, chair of the Harvard School of Public Health’s nutrition department. “Thus, they cannot say that we should eat less red meat, cheese, or butter; instead the guidelines talk abstractly about eating less SOFAS, which only dietitians know means less solid fat and added sugar. (Only) deep in the text of the guidelines, in a footnote, does it say that solid fat is found in meat and dairy products.”
Footnotes and other pertinent information are, sad to say, completely lost in the process of turning obtuse guidelines into “easy-to-read diagrams like the food pyramid and MyPlate.”
While the U.S. government has made dietary recommendations for nearly 100 years, the agricultural lobby largely stayed quiet until 1977 when Senator George McGovern’s committee on nutrition created goals that advised Americans to “decrease consumption of meat.”
Marion Nestle is a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. She notes in her book Food Politics that the meat lobby quickly attacked the goals, eventually leading McGovern to say that he “did not want to disrupt the economic situation of the meat industry and engage in a battle … that we could not win.” Recommending less meat quickly became “choose meats, poultry, and fish, which will reduce saturated fat intake.”
Dietary Guidelines And The Food Pyramid: An Unhappy Arranged Marriage
The tête-à-tête between politics and science only escalated when the USDA tried to wedge the dietary guidelines into the food pyramid back in the early 1990s. This effort catalyzed a year of intense lobbying by the meat and dairy industries, neither of which appreciated their very narrow spaces in the pyramid’s hierarchy.
This unmitigated tension between nutrition science and lobby pressure led to a design that Harvard’s Walter Willett described as “built on shaky scientific ground,” in his book Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy. As Nestle also noted in Food Politics, recommended serving suggestions were altered to appear as if they were minimum serving suggestions, not the maximum serving sizes for a healthy-weight adult.
“The USDA is beholden to agriculture,” says Susan Levin, director of nutrition education at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Levin is referring to the department’s contradictory mandate to promote both industry and the nation’s health. “And as long as the USDA is in charge of the guidelines and [pyramid], you’re going to see them sidestepping good nutrition advice.”
Lobbyists Partying On My Pyramid
Another battle ensued when the USDA redesigned the food pyramid in the mid-2000s. The group overseeing the overhaul met with more than a dozen industry lobbies, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the U.S. Potato Board. A representative with the Malaysian Palm Oil Board even flew around the world to meet with a USDA official. Think about that: He flew around the world!
The well-known guide became 2005’s MyPyramid, which tilted the icon onto its side and removed any visible hierarchy between food groups. “At worst, the lack of information and downright misinformation it conveys contribute to overweight, poor health, and unnecessary early deaths,” Willett wrote.
From The Food Pyramid To The Plate
After being roundly criticized by health experts, the USDA threw out the pyramid design altogether in June 2011 and replaced it with the roundly panned MyPlate icon. At first blush, the new design — which tells consumers to fill each meal’s plate with nearly equal portions of fruits, vegetables, grain, protein, and a separate dish for dairy — was praised for its simplicity. But that was also its downfall.
“The problem is that most Americans are thinking, ‘As long as I have a hot dog on a bun, that’s half of the plate,’” PCRM’s Levin says. “’Include some applesauce, french fries, a glass of milk, and I’m doing exactly what the government told me to do.’ And that’s right. You are.”
When first seeing the plate a year ago, many experts detected the omnipresent influence of industry, specifically citing the random satellite for dairy that looks like a glass of milk. “There’s no biological requirement for cow’s milk and there’s no biological requirement for mother’s milk past weaning,” Levin says. “If anything, there should be a cup of water there.” (The Harvard School of Public Health’s version of the plate, for instance, replaces the milk with water.)
The process by which the 2010 guidelines and MyPlate were created, however, “is the million-dollar question,” says Adele Hite, executive director of the Healthy Nation Coalition. Healthy Nation has tried unsuccessfully to confirm whether the dietary guidelines are based on science. Hite says, “There are some fairly substantial gaps in what comes out of the black box.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Marion Nestle.
The White House invited Nestle, Willett, and other nutritionists to comment on a prototype of MyPlate a year before it was released. Nestle says that she didn’t see any industry involvement this time around, but at the same time, she bemoans the lack of evidence that the solicited input of her peers and herself had any impact. “I’m not sure any expert opinion went into MyPlate. I think it was completely made up in the White House.”
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Nestle now says that the original pyramid was a better design because “it instantly conveys proportion. One of the problems with the plate is that you don’t know how big it is.”
When asked how the plate might affect consumers, Nestle sounds defeated. “I don’t know whether these things ever affect our nation’s health,” she admits. “Nobody sees them and nobody works with them. They mainly affect the food industry. They love the plate because anything can go on it.”
By law, the guidelines need to be revised every five years, so the entire process for creating them is already beginning again as nominations for their advisory committee were due in fall of 2012. “This past 2010 committee was one of the best because it was friendlier than it’s ever been to science,” Levin says. “There was a lot that could have been worse. But you can see that they still don’t know what to do with themselves. That’s why you see ‘protein’ on the plate. That’s not a food. It’s just safer. The meat people will be quiet. But of course, no one’s quiet. I consider that a success to them.”
Photo by Harty Design/Flickr.