The people who make advertising decisions for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) must either have a sick sense of humor or an unconscious desire to admit that they’ve twisted the purpose of the food pyramid from helping people make good eating decisions to supporting food manufacturers.
The USDA is now running a series of public service announcement TV spots in which following the food pyramids help Pinocchio to grow into a real boy.
The idea of using a pyramid to represent the ideal in healthy eating is brilliant in concept: A pyramid is a series of triangular blocks one piled on top of the next, with each successively higher one smaller. The food pyramid uses the lower blocks to represent food groups like carbohydrates of which people should eat more and higher blocks to represent to represent the food groups like meat of which people should eat less. Look at the pyramid and you know exactly how to eat a healthy diet.
But as Marc Bittman (whom I trashed for his Thanksgiving anxiety piece in the New York Times) accurately points out in Food Matters, the food pyramid was tainted from its first public appearance as a USDA communications tool in 1992. Although the first pyramid did get all the proportions right (6-11 daily servings of carbs; 2-4 or fruit; 3-5 of vegetables; only 2-3 from the vast group comprising meat, nuts, poultry, beans and eggs and sparing use of fats and sugar), nowhere did the pyramid mention that the carbs should all be whole-grain. Bittman notes that it would thus be possible for someone to eat only highly refined carbohydrates, which metabolize like the sugar we are advised to avoid. Bad for people, but good for food processors.
Today’s pyramid is a disgusting depiction of how special interests can sabotage the public interest. Instead of blocks that use the pyramid’s shape to symbolize nutritional eating, the pyramid comprises a series of vertical bands, some slightly thicker and some slightly thinner, extending from the base to the apex of the pyramid. We are supposed to eat less of the food from the thinner bands, but it’s so hard to tell the difference.
But in fact the visual impact of the pyramid structure is completely lost. The branding power of being able to see shapes that have immediate meaning is completely lost. Instead we have a cheerfully colorful geometrical form that tells us nothing about nutrition. We can of course read the fine print by clicking on the various bands, but instead of seeing in one image a strategy for healthy eating, we instead get a collection of unrelated factoids.
There are all kinds of lies, including lies by omission, by careful selection and pruning of facts, by false comparisons (conflations), by changing the subject to something irrelevant, or in the case of the food pyramid by the placement of facts on the page. Saying that the combination of food groups we should eat has a pyramidal relationship to each other and then arranging the pyramid to conceal that relationship is a form of lying to my mind very similar to saying that refined sugar is natural or touting fat content for foods as a means to pretend that it makes them good for dieting.
In short, the USDA is a puppet for food processors. And we all know what happens to the noses of puppets like Pinocchio when they lie.