This week, the USDA unveiled a brand new food pyramid. Or rather, twelve new pyramids - the new icon is actually a stand-in for a web-based system that customizes dietary recommendations as per a person's age, weight, and fitness. Without Internet access, the pyramid doesn't communicate much at all. Except, as NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle tells Brooke, a long history of food industry influence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Tuesday, the US Department of Agriculture unveiled the new food pyramid, composed of vertical colored stripes, forming a triangle with a little staircase up one side, with a figure climbing on it, denoting, I guess, the value of exercise. Unlike the old food pyramid, which offered suggested portions of clearly labeled food groups, the new icon has no words or pictures. Jeffrey Shaffer of the Christian Science Monitor wrote that, to him, the new pyramid looks like the sort of undecipherable road sign drivers might encounter while motoring in one of the former Soviet Republics. The fact is: you won't know what the USDA thinks you should eat unless you go to the accompanying web site, my pyramid dot gov. There, you can type in your age, sex and activity level and get one of twelve possible pyramids with suggested food and amounts attached. The icon, except for the little exercise guy, tells you zip. Marion Nestle is professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. Marion, welcome to the show.
MARION NESTLE: Thank you. Nice to be on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you make of the new pyramid, or should I say pyramids?
MARION NESTLE: It's really pretty amazing. It - a two and a half million-dollar project that ended up with a graphic that emphasizes activity, hides the food, and requires people to have computers in order to figure out what it is [LAUGHTER] they're supposed to be doing. I watched the press conference releasing the pyramid with community nutrition students at Cornell. They were appalled. They were flabbergasted. They just said, "Our clients don't have computers." You know, and I think the old pyramid had a lot going for it. What I liked about it was that it was clearly hierarchical. It made it very clear that you were supposed to eat more food from the bottom of the pyramid than the top, and that meant plant foods, and that you weren't supposed to eat so many foods from the top of the pyramid, which is where all the junk food went.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you know, present day nutritionists, talking about the pyramid that you're nostalgic about, some of them say that its emphasis on starches was misleading and perhaps unhealthy. It didn't make the nation any thinner.
MARION NESTLE: Well, why would it? It had no educational campaign accompanying it. Most people in this country get their education about nutrition from the food industry. And I am willing to bet - in fact, I already know, because they've already announced it - that cereal companies, bread companies and a large number of other food industries are going to be using this particular diagram with glee and pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, I'm kind of interested in the pyramid as a very important piece of American iconography. It dates back to 1992. But, I-
MARION NESTLE: Well, actually it dates back to 1991, which is when the Department of Agriculture first tried to release it and was forced to withdraw it under pressure from the cattlemen's associations and the dairy lobbying groups, because they didn't like where their food ended up at the top of the pyramid. So, in this version, they've gotten rid of that problem. There isn't anything at the top of the pyramid. [LAUGHTER] I guess you're supposed to figure out where it went. One of the interesting things about it from my standpoint is that Porter Novelli, the public relations firm that developed this, had done an earlier version in which there was clear hierarchy. It had whole wheat bread at the bottom and cinnabuns at the top. [LAUGHTER] And all of the "eat less" messages have been gotten rid of. So there isn't anything that you can't eat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This pyramid doesn't tell you anywhere to eat less, and you mentioned Porter Novelli, this public relations group. Other departments of Porter Novelli represent various food industry clients with a lot at stake in the development of this pyramid. Should we be at all concerned about this?
MARION NESTLE: Well, we should be, because conflict of interest is just rife in this entire process. It isn't only that Porter Novelli has conflict of interest, but the Department of Agriculture has conflict of interest. And this conflict has gone back many, many years. On the one hand, the department's main function is to promote consumption of American agricultural products, and for that, the USDA must ask people to eat more, not less. At the same time, the department is supposed to be the lead agency for advising the public about diet and health. This sometimes means eat less. It certainly should mean eat less junk food.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it doesn't even say that.
MARION NESTLE: It can't say that. It gets into too much political trouble.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did the US Department of Agriculture ever get into this business of, you know, public health campaigns?
MARION NESTLE: This happened during the Carter administration, when officials of the Department of Agriculture were more interested in health than officials in the Department of Health and Human Services. Health and Human Services didn't want to touch dietary advising, because they thought it was too complicated and too controversial, and they had more important things to do. So, the officials of the Department of Agriculture, which was extremely liberal and consumer-friendly at that time, stepped into the gap and got Congress to put in report language that they would be the lead agency for dietary advice to the public. They then put out the first set of dietary guidelines that came out in 1980, and they produced this very consumer-friendly pamphlet with seven recommendations that were really simple - things like "Avoid too much sugar." And, in 1980, when the Reagan administration came in, dietary advice stayed with the Department of Agriculture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But its priorities shifted.
MARION NESTLE: Its priorities have shifted in very profound ways.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so your feeling is, is that this pyramid - this has been a multi million-dollar - is it too strong to say "disaster?"
MARION NESTLE: Oh, I don't know whether it's a disaster. I just don't think it's helpful. I mean if you want to help the American people at a time when people are so overweight, you want an educational campaign focused on eating less. And to do that, you have to restrict portion size. Everything should be about portion size these days.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you visually depict eating less?
MARION NESTLE: Well, I'm not a graphic designer. But if somebody gave me two and a half million dollars, I bet I could find somebody who could do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marion, thank you very much.
MARION NESTLE: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marion Nestle is professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. And now, this perspective from Marilyn Manson.
MARILYN MANSON: [SINGING] THE ANCIENT PHARAOHS WERE NOT TOO BRIGHT, THEY SAY. BUT THEY MADE ONE CONTRIBUTION THAT I LIVE BY TO THIS DAY. IT'S THE FOOD PYRAMID, AND IT'S APPROVED BY THE USDA. OH, GRAINS ARE THE FOUNDATION, SO PLEASE TAKE MY ADVICE - HAVE FIVE TO ELEVEN SERVINGS OF BREAD, CEREAL OR RICE, THREE TO FIVE OF VEGETABLES, AND FOUR OF FRUITS IS BEST, THEIR ANTI-OXIDANTS AND FIBER HELP YOU TO DIGEST; THREE SERVINGS OF YOGURT, MILK AND CHEESE WILL HELP YOUR BONES AND SUBSIDIZE THE CATTLE INDUSTRIES. A BODY NEEDS TO GROW. AND GROWING TAKES PROTEINS. THAT'S WHY MEAT CAN BE A TASTY TREAT LIKE FISH OR HUMAN BEINGS. AND WHEN YOU--- EAT YOUR SWEETS, MAKE SURE YOU--- TRY TO LIMIT YOUR SERVINGS OR YOU'LL DIE!!! EVERYBODY GROUP: [SINGING] MY BODY IS A PYRAMID THAT'S MADE OF HEALTHY FOOD, SO DO WHAT WE SAY (YEAH) EAT RIGHT EVERY DAY (FOOD) I--- LOVE--- YOU. [THEME MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: 58:00 That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo, and edited-- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Susanna Dilliplane and Nick Gilewicz. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. [THEME MUSIC TAG]
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