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Politics versus Science: Opposing the Food Pyramid

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1 Politics versus Science: Opposing the Food Pyramid
Marion Nestle

2 The Building of the Pyramid: A Legislative Background
Mid-1970’s: USDA & Department of Health, Education & Welfare (DEHA) were competing for control of nutrition research and education USDA’s officials, appointed by President Jimmy Carter, won regulatory control and wanted to establish new food guide to help public prevent nutritional deficiencies, meet dietary goal targets for prevention against chronic diseases 1988: Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the successor to DEHA, objected to USDA’s involvement and alleged that the agencies under its jurisdiction, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were in a better position for education and research on diet and health. Congress overruled, allows USDA to continue its conflicting dual role in protecting agricultural producers and to advise the public about a proper diet

3 USDA’s Human Nutrition Information Service (HNIS) & The Food Pyramid
1980 Dietary Guidelines designed to alleviate food industry’s concerns about Dietary Goals and yet advise public about ways to reduce dietary risks for chronic diseases. Guidelines referred to specific nutrients – fat, salt & sugar and not the actual foods that contain them; Nutritionists at HNIS wanted to make a new dietary guide that would be easily understood by the public NHIS researched and established nutritional goals, defined food groups, assigned serving sizes, determined number of servings that would prevent nutrient deficiencies and yet be low in saturated fat and cholesterol 1984: Basic elements of new food guide established in a Food Wheel divided into sectors proportionate to number of daily recommended servings as follows: 6-11 grains, 2-4 fruits, 3-5 vegetables, 2-3 servings meat & dairy; fats sweets and alcohol under the ‘eat in moderation’ category Appealing messages: variety (food groups), proportionality (number of servings) and moderation (on fat and sugar) 1991: Mass publication and distribution of the reformed Pyramid

4 Toppling the Pyramid An inexperienced Republican, Edward R. Madigan appointed as Secretary of Agriculture, many events unfold in his first few weeks in office The April Saga: April 10: Health Advocacy group, The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) requests USDA to replace the Basic Four food groups in their Pyramid with overwhelmingly vegetarian based food groups and sparing use of meat and dairy Former USDA secretary responds by calling it an irresponsible act, elevates the ‘eat less meat’ to front page news April 11: A reporter in collaboration with a veteran USDA nutritionist compared both recommendations and drafted press release stating that the Pyramid was a “far more balanced and sensible approach” April 13: Washington Post reports Malcolm Gladwell pursues news release with interviews where industry notables lent their weight behind the Pyramid and this update was released coincidentally with the National Cattlemen’s Association annual meeting in Washington D.C. April 15: Cattlemen’s Association complain to Secretary Madigan that the Pyramid will cause people to eat lesser meat and allege that meat should not be displaced so close to the fats and sugars; join together with National Milk Producers Association demanding USDA to withdraw the Pyramid April 27: Secretary Madigan withdraws the Pyramid on the dubious basis that it confuses children; reflected USDA’s conflicts of interest related to dietary advice and history of responding to agricultural producers at the expense of public health

5 Defending the Pyramid USDA rebuked with hundreds of protest letters from organizations such as the American Cancer Society, Society of Nutrition Education, Center for Science in the Public Interest and the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association; calls to President George Bush to transfer responsibility of dietary guidance from USDA to DHHS Press alleges on USDA’s & Government’s favoritism towards corporate interests; public controversy makes USDA deny HNIS officials from working on the Pyramid and from talking to the press But HNIS staff were concerned about the scientific credibility of their work and spoke anonymously to press Secretary Madigan releases various misleading press releases stating in one that the Pyramid and its symbols were untested with the intended audiences, children and undereducated; that he did not cancel the pyramid because of pressure from the dairy and cattle industries in another. On the contrary, the Pyramid was targeted at adults of average income and education and was not specifically targeted towards USDA food assistance program recipients; the Food Wheel had never been used in classrooms

6 Renegotiating Research
USDA obligated to conduct further research, awarding a 6-month $400,000 contract to Bell Associates to test value of Pyramid against other graphic designs in communicating dietary advice to adults and children receiving food assistance. Total of at least $855,000 paid to Bell Associates whose research proved that the Pyramid was at least as effective as any other at conveying the concepts of variation, proportionality and moderation; did survey with adults and school children on food stamps, compiled results that Industry representatives preferred pie-charts and bowl diagrams that did not stack the food groups while the nutritional professionals preferred pyramids for their effectiveness at conveying messages Upon performing quantitative research, found out that adults and children preferred bowl diagrams because they represented food. USDA faced with dilemma: continue/reinstate pyramid design or establish a bowl design diagram; USDA & DHHS form advisory committee that eventually concluded based on a score derived on variation, proportionality and moderation and convened upon the use of a new, revamped pyramid

7 Releasing New Pyramid April 28, 1992: Secretary Madigan releases USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid; new version differed in at least 33 ways, many trivial except for the term “Eating Right” changed to “Food Guide” in response to complaints from Kraft Foods that alleges copyright infringements New Pyramid had increased the range of meat allowance, specified that 2-3 servings of meat allowance should be 5-7 ounces instead of 4-6 ounces in the previous pyramid Madigan states that such improvements no longer mislead people “into believing that some foods were good while others were bad, or that some foods were more important than others” that itself was misleading because the purpose of the pyramid was to show food groups in hierarchies of importance Conflicting reports of disagreement between USDA and DHHS surfaces and culminates in a new version of the Pyramid in August 1992 titled The Food Guide Pyramid rather than USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid to correctly reflect the contributions of DHHS to the development of this “research based food guidance system”

8 Survival of the Pyramid: Implications
Development of the pyramid was based on USDA nutritionists’ research, reviews from experts, consumer testing and discussions at professional meetings before being approved for publication by the USDA Pyramid design made it too evident for food groups to be placed in hierarchies and that some foods are more important than others Rescue and revamp of food guide took place because of nutritionists in the government and private sector worked in the backgrounds to ensure continued research and press coverage The press used this to reflect the conflicts of interest of the USDA and to criticize lobbyists role in influencing federal policy. Withdrawal of the pyramid was followed by a recession and a changing political climate that culminated in the election of a Democratic President Bill Clinton that favored the interests of the public against that of corporate interests, at least for the moment

9 …Implications Continued
USDA’s implementation of the Pyramid is a triumph of science over politics; has been used in schools and on package labels. Has been widely distributed and is recognized readily these days and is an icon in its own right appearing in food advertisements, cookbooks, board games and even on Christmas ornaments. Within 3 years of release, nearly half of American adults had heard of it; spawned many offshoots illustrating diets of other cultural or ethnic groups or to suit any dietary preference Pyramid has been highly influential but is highly questionable as to whether it has improved dietary intake; too much of a focus of nutrients instead of the actual food Gosh I could go on and on about my on personal commentary on the fallacy of the food pyramid and dietary intakes of the average (for the lack of a better word) consumer.


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