The First Food Pyramid Never Worked

Rather than admit failure, the government acts as if the guidelines have been working and gives us more of the same.

By John L. Stanton, Contributing Editor

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Someone once said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. How long will the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture continue to spend tax money on dietary guidelines with the same results: We aren’t changing our eating patterns.

The new dietary guidelines and more recently the Food Guide Pyramid largely are the same advice that led to the obesity problem in America. Only now there are so many permutations and combinations that you need a computer with Internet access to get the information. What were they thinking? “We told them to eat less, exercise more and cut back on certain items like fat and salt and they actually did the reverse. Maybe if we rearrange the lines on the pyramid they will start following the advice…” Was that the logic?

The problem is the government just can’t admit that after spending millions of taxpayer dollars trying to get us to eat “healthier” they failed. So rather than admit failure they act as if it’s working and just do more of the same.

New research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health and funded by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (and reported in Phil Lempert’s Supermarket Newsletter) concludes that nutrition label reading by adolescents does not translate into a healthier diet. This conclusion is consistent with the 1997 study published in the journal Adolescence, which found that, when compared with taste, habit and price, nutrition labels factor very low in how adolescents make food choices.

What does this mean for food companies? I think we should stop acting like the people in the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes, and say the current approach is nonsense and not working. Placating the USDA and FDA is not serving our consumers, which means in the long run not serving our shareholders.

Some companies such as PepsiCo are making a gallant effort to provide foods that are good for you. Unfortunately most people really don’t want them. I think it’s more a case of USDA and FDA wanting the industry to offer them for sale. Some companies are selling healthier foods because it is a legal defense. They say, “We offer ‘good-for-you foods,’ but we can’t be responsible if no one buys them.”

We should do the best job possible trying to provide consumers with delicious and safe food. We should make it conveniently available but most importantly it should be what consumers want to eat and are willing to pay for. This also means that there may be niche markets for certain foods that some think are healthy or good for you. Whole Foods is a wonderful example of a profitable niche business.

My dad was a simple man who brought everything down to basics. I once did poorly in school and I promised to do better in the following semester. He looked at me and said, “Talk is cheap. Show me and I’ll believe you.” If everyone wants healthy food let them show us with their money, and not through their self-appointed spokespersons such as Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The solution to America’s obesity is not to have the food police telling us what to make and sell. I think the solution is going to require a whole new way of thinking. It may be to recognize that we have totally accepted a sedentary lifestyle. We have a world with escalators, Game Boys, remote controls, even pop-top cans so we don’t have to use a can opener. Telling people to get more exercise seems like telling farmers to use mules to plow their fields. It will never happen again. And I don’t think telling people to stop eating the things they love will ever work either.

I believe the food industry should sponsor a conference to address the obesity problem where the solution isn’t trying to get people to eat less or trying to get people to exercise more. I obviously don’t have a solution or I would be king of the world. But I know the solution is not more guidelines, revised guidelines or more information on the same old things. The government and nutrition groups refuse to admit they have failed. So let’s try to find some new creative solutions before they bankrupt us by trying to prove they are right.



John L. Stanton is a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia. He can be contacted at 610-660-1607; e-mail at jstanton@sju.edu.

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