I’m taking summer courses—crazy, I know—because they were too good to pass up. I just finished a great class called “Food Policy and Law,” and here is one of my papers for it. I have a question for you: Both my husband and I distinctly remember getting a worksheet with the food pyramid in elementary school, i.e. the late 1970s. But according to my research this is impossible, as it didn’t get published until the 1990s. Does anyone else remember the food pyramid from earlier than that?
United States dietary policy is communicated via a publication entitled “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” which is updated every five years (most recently in 2010). The purpose of the document is: “to be used in developing educational materials and aiding policymakers in designing and carrying out nutrition-related programs, including Federal nutrition assistance and education programs. The Dietary Guidelines also serve as the basis for nutrition messages and consumer materials developed by nutrition educators and health professionals for the general public and specific audiences, such as children” (USDA and U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 2010, p. i).
This explanation is rather practical, compared with the loftier purpose stated in the introduction of the report itself: “The ultimate goal of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is to improve the health of our Nation’s current and future generations by facilitating and promoting healthy eating and physical activity choices so that these behaviors become the norm among all individuals” (ibid., p. 1). This goal engages the culture of the United States, as well as its eating habits.
To make the guidelines more palatable to the general public, the USDA has issued a number of graphic pamphlets over the years. Their titles illustrate the culture of the time, such as “Food for Fitness” in the mid-1900s, when cars and household machines made leisure time (and, therefore, a sedentary lifestyle) a possibility for the middle class for the first time, and the “Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide” in 1979, when women began entering the workforce while still being expected to run the household (USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, 2011). Starting in 1992 the department made the illustration more cartoon-like, ostensibly in the service of their above-noted goal of appealing to children: first a pyramid and now a brightly colored plate.
The Food Pyramid, its fin de siècle tart-up MyPyramid, and most recent MyPlate schemes have many things in common, but some important differences. None of them reveals an invisible major player in how their guidelines were created: agriculture lobby organizations.
The USDA Food and Nutrition Services is successful at the first goal stated above (developing educational materials and aiding policymakers), partly because their programs, such as The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and National School Lunch Program (NSLP) are required to base their guidelines and practices on the federal dietary guidelines. WIC is the most prescriptive of the programs, indicating exactly what the shopper may purchase. NSLP provides a participating school reimbursement for meals served, rather than supplying ingredients, with the exception of “bonus” foods, which are agricultural surpluses (USDA, 2013). SNAP is the least prescriptive, with individual recipients using a charge-card-type device with the cashier of a grocery store. While a few purchases are forbidden (tobacco products, alcoholic beverages, non-food items), the recipient has freedom of choice over brand, size, etc. (Fitzgerald et al., 2012).
The government’s effectiveness regarding its second, “ultimate” goal (to improve the health of our Nation’s current and future generations) is abysmal. The Trust for America’s Health reports that adult obesity rates have doubled since 1980, from 15 to 30 percent, while childhood obesity rates have more than tripled (n.d.). In an interview on the Public Broadcasting Service program Frontline, Dr. Walter Willet noted the disastrous effect of the country’s well-meaning nutritionists encouraging people in the 1970s and ‘80s to abandon butter (saturated fat) for margarine and shortening (hydrogenated or “trans” fat), causing heart disease and other health problems.
“[The Food Pyramid] is really not compatible with good scientific evidence, and it was really out of date from the day it was printed in 1991, because we knew, and we’ve known for 30 or 40 years that the type of fat is very important. That was totally neglected (emphasis mine)” (Willett, 2004).
Additionally, the federal government has lagged in considering culturally appropriate foods and non-carnivorous diets, and providing its information in languages other than English and Spanish (though some states have translated the materials, depending on the needs of their population). An organization called Oldways has attempted to fill this gap with its Mediterranean, Asian, Latin American, African Heritage, and vegetarian/vegan pyramids (n.d.).
Harvard University’s School of Public Health has refuted the value of the new MyPlate design roundly, criticizing it for not mentioning healthy unsaturated fats (e.g. olive or canola oil), for not condemning openly sugary drinks including fruit juice, and for supporting dairy products and refined grains (2011). MyPlate has absolved itself of any real responsibility on its website: “MyPlate is designed to remind Americans to eat healthfully; it is not intended to change consumer behavior alone (emphasis in original)” (USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, 2013).
Effects on Consumer Demand
In a general and surface-level way, Americans care about eating healthy food, or at least thinking about it. What matters, however, is when the fork hits the plate: Actual food choices are more relevant than intentions. What Americans understand about nutrition can affect their choices.
In this way, the inaccuracies of the Food Pyramid, and now MyPlate, can be devastating to the average consumer. People who think French fries are healthy because potatoes are listed as a vegetable, or that white dinner rolls are an appropriate grains serving, must know to look elsewhere to find better information (Green, n.d.).
There are a few possible reasons for the failure of the national nutrition standards to have resulted in worse, not better, health of the general populace. The main two are the success of marketing efforts for unhealthy food and beverage choices, and the flaws built into the Food Pyramid/MyPlate paradigm itself. The former is simply the result of a free market and consumer free will, which often results in unhealthful choices. The latter can be attributed to industry interference.
What is missing from the seemingly innocuous, even noble, goals of the USDA and HHS is the behind-the-scenes influence of agribusiness. This influence has affected what is in the dietary guidelines, and in the illustrated version of the guidelines, at least since Sen. George McGovern endeavored in 1977 to update the nation’s nutrition guidelines in light of new scientific findings—which recommended reductions in salt, meat, and sugar—and was soundly crushed by the American National Cattlemen’s Association, International Sugar Research Foundation, Salt Institute, United Egg Producers and numerous state egg councils, and National Live Stock and Meat Board, ultimately resulting in the complete corruption of the guidelines and the transfer of their purview from the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs to what is now the USDA (Greger, 2013).
Because government-funded food-supplement programs like SNAP and WIC are significant sources of funds ($78 billion in 2011 and $11.6 billion in 2012, respectively), agricultural lobbies work hard to keep their food items recommended. The most recent fight is over white (russet) potatoes. WIC does not provide potatoes, and the potato lobby is trying to change that. Not because they are concerned about the health of America’s low-income mothers, critics say, but because of the money they are missing out on (WIC is a $600 million program) and because of the public perception that potatoes must be “bad” if they’re not included (Nestle, 2014; Rampell, 2014).
Meanwhile, people who keep more rigorous habits than what MyPlate recommends rely on studies and reports from entities other than the federal government for their nutrition information, and tend to shop at farmers’ markets, natural food stores, and other farm-to-table outlets. The efforts of supporters of non-industrial, organically grown food have made some inroads with the federal government, but the results have been minimal. For example, the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program received $16.5 million in funding in 2011, which amounts to approximately 3 percent of the total WIC program (USDA, 2012). Of the $71.8 billion redeemed in SNAP benefits from 2010 to 2011, only $11.7 million was redeemed at farmers’ markets (Roper, 2012). Farm-to-school programs are gaining popularity but have a long way to go before they put a dent in the NSLP; hospitals and prisons are even more marginalized. Some restaurants voluntarily specialize in locally grown ingredients, but these are mid- to high-scale establishments.
While personal choice will always create a place for unhealthy foods and beverages, the federal government should at least provide accurate, sensible information about the components of a healthy diet. Until its dietary guidelines are separated from the USDA, which is essentially the chamber of commerce for U.S. agriculture, and overseen by nutritional scientists with no financial connection to the outcome of their findings, the United States will continue down its path of preventable diet-related obesity and disease.