USDA Has Too Much on Its Plate

The USDA has updated its website for MyPlate, the successor to its food pyramid. It’s basically a bunch of sound if utterly predictable nutritional advice, like “cook a variety of colorful veggies” and “enjoy a low-fat yogurt parfait for breakfast.”

MyPlateI know USDA’s heart is in the right place – sort of – but it has me thinking, again, about the history of MyPlate and its predecessor, the Food Pyramid. And beyond that, about the USDA’s conflict of interest when it comes to advising consumers on nutrition.

USDA rolled out the first version of the Food Pyramid in 1992. The idea was to allot space to food groups according to their nutritional desirability. Unfortunately, in a pyramid, that means working from the top down, which led to fats and oils sitting at the apex. How is it effective communication to put the worst food on top?

Old pyramidThere were other problems. “Meat” was represented by symbols that included an egg and a chicken, which, as critics pointed out, are not nutritionally equal; the egg has much more cholesterol. The pyramid’s bottom level, meaning the food that we should presumably eat most of, was reserved for grain-based products, but that drew complaints that Americans already consume too many carbs.

But the biggest round of complaints came from farmers and food processors who thought that the pyramid slighted, or slandered, their products. With those ringing in their ears, the USDA rolled out Pyramid II in 2005. This time all the food groups were clustered at the bottom of the pyramid, underneath stripes that ran upward. The nutritional desirability of the food was denoted by the thickness of the stripe. Get it?

New pyramidOf course you don’t; practically no one did. To make things more ludicrous, the new design featured a figure running up stairs on one side of the pyramid. This was supposed to emphasize the importance of exercise, but to many people, it looked like an attempt to encourage consumers into burning off the excess calories they were being confused into consuming. After all, as one critic noted, adequate rest is as important to health as exercise; why not show a guy snoozing?

MyPlate, which was unveiled in 2011, did away with the pyramid entirely. Instead, we have a big plate and a little one. The big one is divided into quadrants for vegetables, grains, fruits and protein. The first two are slightly bigger than the last two, but that’s the only attempt at proportionality here. The little plate is entirely devoted to dairy. I’m not sure what’s up with that.

In any case, no pyramid, plate and other graphic can make up for what I think is the main problem here: the contradiction at the heart of the USDA’s mission.

MyPlate is part of USDA’s mission to educate consumers about nutrition. But it has a more important mission: protecting and helping farmers. One of the ways it does this is by encouraging consumption of commodities that are over-produced and, thus, often have to be shored up with price support payments to farmers. Two of the biggest such commodities are milk and corn.

See where I’m going with this? Milk means cheese, and corn means meat (the single biggest use of corn is to feed cattle, hogs and chickens) and high-fructose corn syrup. In other words, some of the unhealthiest foods available.

USDA’s link with bad foods can get quite direct. Do you know how Pizza Hut came up with the idea for cheese-stuffed crust? They didn’t. It was developed in a USDA lab, as part of an ongoing mission to encourage cheese consumption, and licensed to Pizza Hut.

By all means, let’s have the USDA advocate for corn and dairy farmers. But if the government is serious about nutrition education, it should give that function to the Department of Health and Human Services or some other agency that’s structured to put consumer welfare first.