You've seen it -- gracing health clinic walls, stamped on food labels, alongside articles in glossy fitness magazines. If anything, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid is ubiquitous. It is also controversial, increasingly so as new science overturns some stubborn dogmas (still eating those fat free cookies?) and even the USDA's newest reports clash with the famous figure.
The pyramid was approved in 1992, as a means to abridge the government's more comprehensive Dietary Guidelines For Americans into one simple, easy-to-understand graphic. It was an instant public relations hit.
The guidelines -- which had themselves been condensed into a 39-page booklet -- are revised every five years and have since been changed to reflect new research. But the pyramid remains unchanged. What's more, some experts say it was never much good to begin with. All this nutritional wrangling has left ordinary Americans with a less than simple message. And it has The Why Files wondering: Is it time to rebuild the pyramid?
"Since 1992 more and more research has shown that the USDA pyramid is grossly flawed," wrote Walter Willett, a nutritionist at the Harvard School of Public Health. The USDA is now drafting a revision of the pyramid that is scheduled for completion in 2005, but Willett and others aren't sitting silent in the meantime.
Photo by Scott Bauer USDA.
Nestle -- who is now the chair of New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies -- managed the production of the first (and only) Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health in 1988. She chronicled the food industry's influence on government dietary guidelines in her book Food Politics, writing, "My first day on the job, I was given the rules: No matter what the research indicated, the report could not recommend 'eat less meat' as a way to reduce intake of saturated fat....The producers of food that might be affected by such advice would complain to their beneficiaries in Congress, and the report would never be published."
In a similar vein, Nestle says, the USDA weighed industry interests along with nutrition science as the food pyramid was built. The National Cattlemen's Association, for instance, launched a heavy campaign to stop promotion of the pyramid's release -- a campaign that resulted in a year long delay in the pyramid's release.
Photo by Keith Weller, USDA.
In fact, the USDA has a dual role: to provide nutrition advice to the public and to ensure the success of American agriculture. Accordingly, Nestle says, we should be wary when the USDA -- or any government body -- issues health advice. Earlier this year, the US-based Sugar Association responded with fury and fire when the World Health Organization revised its nutrition guidelines to recommend that people get no more than ten percent of their calories from sugar (For details, see this recent Washington Post story). Does Nestle think that international organizations like the WHO face conflicts of interests similar to those faced by the USDA?
"I don't just think so, I know so," Nestle told The Why Files. "I've seen the Sugar Association correspondence with WHO... What's so surprising about it is not that they are doing such lobbying, but that it is so blatantly self-serving and disregarding of the health of the public."
Starting to doubt the old standard? Join the era of the personalized pyramid.
©2003, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.