Influence and the Food Pyramid

  • The USDA's food pyramid. (Photo courtesy of the USDA)

The USDA food pyramid shows the amounts and kinds of foods that are healthy to eat. But the food pyramid is not simply about eating right. Money and politics play a big role in this symbol. Kyle Norris takes a look:


The USDA food pyramid shows the amounts and kinds
of foods that are healthy to eat. But the food pyramid is
not simply about eating right. Money and politics play a
big role in this symbol. Kyle Norris takes a look:

You’ve heard of the food pyramid, right?

“I can see the picture of the food pyramid… I think it’s how much of each type of food you’re
supposed to eat.”

“The food pyramid is like non-existent
in my day-to-day reality.”

“Yeah, I didn’t really understand what the point of the food pyramid was.”

The pyramid is a visual tool that the United States
Department of Agriculture created in the 1990s to help
people know what to eat. The USDA has advised
people about nutrition for a long time.

Throughout the past century, nutritional advice was
generally a message to eat more food and a wider
variety of food, and eventually people did eat more
food… too much food. And overeating and chronic
diseases became a problem.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, the
message about nutrition changed. The government said
scale back. Eat less. And this caused an uproar, and it
still does:

“Food companies are upset about it because they don’t
want the government telling people to eat less of the
products they manufacture.”

That’s Marion Nestle. She’s a professor of Nutrition,
Food Studies, and Public Health at New York
University. She also wrote the book “Food Politics:”

“This is health conflicting with business interests
basically, and since food companies, among other
corporations, fund election campaigns, elected leaders
need to listen to them. And since elected leaders control
what goes on in federal agencies, federal agencies need
to listen to elected leaders. That’s how our political
system works.”

Here’s what happens from that trickle down effect:
Corporations influence the food pyramid. So, the
pyramid’s wording of what and how much you should
eat gets watered-down and un-specific, so as not to
offend the food companies.

Here’s Nestle again:

“We don’t have an independent voice in the government
advising the public about diet and health because
if the government were to advise the public
about diet and health, it would have to tell people to eat
less junk food. And it can’t do that… Because the companies
that produce the junk food wouldn’t stand for it.”

It’s not only junk food companies that freak out about
what the government says you should eat. The meat
industry threw a fit when the pyramid was going to be
released in 1991.

The pyramid said those awful, hurtful words about
meat: “Eat less.”

So the USDA yanked the pyramid, tweaked it ever so
slightly, and re-released it the next year. The food
industry made a lot of squawk about the pyramid. You
have to wonder what kind of pressure that had on the

Jackie Haven is a USDA nutritionist:

“I really, there’s really nothing I have to say on that
issue. I don’t feel we had pressure from anybody and…
Can we move to something else?

Okay, so, she wouldn’t say much.

But you have to wonder if the USDA had a conflict of
interest here. Their key job is to promote agriculture in
the marketplace. And yet they tell us what we should eat.

Marion Nestle says the USDA does have a conflict of

“Its main function
is to sell more products not less. It’s the fox guarding
the chicken… certainly not the place
where you have independent advice about what to eat.

The USDA created the new “” in 2005.
They’ve dubbed it an “interactive food guidance
system.” About the only way you can get to it is online.

You punch in your age, weight, and height. You also
type in how physically active you are each day. Then it
spits out a personalized plan.

My My Pyramid plan said that every day I should eat about 7
ounces of grains, 3 cups veggies, 2 cups fruit, 3 cups of
milk, and 6 ounces of meat and beans. I don’t know
how to translate that information. I mean, I don’t really measure my
apples in cups. And three cups of milk?

The new My Pyramid’s wording is delicate. It says things like “Most meat and poultry choices
should be lean or lowfat.” “Include” this,
“Choose” that. Not very specific suggestions.

Marion Nestle says there’s no evidence that the public
understands the original pyramid. She says even fewer
people understand the new My Pyramid. The food
pyramid has always been controversial. Its stated
purpose is to help us eat healthier.

The political reality is that pressure from the food
industry makes it very difficult for the pyramid to clearly say
what is really best for our health.

For the Environment Report, I’m Kyle Norris.

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