This past Memorial Day weekend brought news from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that it is taking the wrecking ball to the food pyramid, which USDA, nutritionists and countless school curricula have used to try to educate children (and adults!) about nutrition since 1992.
As the article in the New York Times details, nutrition experts have come to the conclusion that the pyramid is too confusing for people to understand and deeply flawed “because it did not distinguish clearly between healthy foods like whole grains and fish and less healthy choices like white bread and bacon. A version of the pyramid currently appearing on cereal boxes, frozen dinners and other foods has been so streamlined and stripped of information that many people have no idea what it represents.”
Well of course it was confusing. It was meant to be that way. I’m not talking about the original pyramid concept, which was conceived as building blocks, with more blocks for carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables (near the base of the pyramid) and fewer for meats and almost none for desserts and sweet snacks. The pyramid concept was and still can be useful in discussing proper nutrition.
But the construction of the pyramid fell into the hands of the pharaonic leaders of the food industry: The dairy industry made sure that dairy products had their own bricks and that there were more of them than they should have. The pyramid proposed minimum amounts for fruits and vegetables, but maximum amounts for meats, a nice little touch for meat packers.
But these initial sops to the food industry were not enough. Still later the USDA replaced the horizontal bricks with vertical strips, each one representing a different food group and all laden with information. The color of the strips and the fact that they were laid side by side and ascended to a pinnacle made it hard to distinguish the widths of the strips, making it appear at first glance that you were supposed to eat as many sweets as vegetables. This confusing ordering of geometric space must have also delighted chip makers.
Delightful to all merchants of processed food was the overall confusing muddle into which the USDA turned the pyramid structure. To those selling food products full of salt, sugar and chemicals, even more advantageous than no information is a confused tangle of information from which consumers can freely select what they want to follow.
The new symbol of ideal nutrition proposed by the Obama Administration is a round dish. USDA hasn’t released the final composition yet, but it promises that half of the plate will be dedicated to fruits and vegetables. Although I fully approve of the First Lady’s campaign against childhood obesity, which highlights nutrition and fitness, I have seen the Obama Administration sell out to the interests of industry time and again, so I’m dubious about the USDA commitment to making the dish reflective of what an ideal diet should be. Already, we have learned that it will come with a separate smaller plate representing dairy products, which must gratify the dairy industry. Will we end up with several plates, for appetizers, side dishes and dessert as it were?
The 20-year history of the food pyramid is really the story of American enslavement to advertising and its siren call of immediate gratification. Junk food is sold at every event. It’s given out at every play date. Snack machines are in virtually every office building. The amount of TV programming dedicated to food has grown geometrically, so when we see people on TV, they are often doing what we’re doing as we watch them: eating. Our youth are addicted to chips, soda, dry cereal, fast food…and overeating. And most of the many food ads we see on TV are for the worst of foods: for every pitch for blueberries or apples we see on TV, there must be dozens if not hundreds of ads for hamburgers, all laden with high-calorie sauces, bacon and cheese.
So while I’m overjoyed to see this symbol of our enslavement fall, I also wonder with trepidation what the government and food industry are planning to dish out next.