The Food Pyramid – How the U.S Government continues to be influenced by Agricultural companies

by adamreddy

The American Government started publishing significant dietary guidelines in the 1980s with focus on improving American health. In 1992 the USDA (U.S Department of Agriculture) published the food pyramid – a definitive guide to healthy eating. Looking through the pyramid, there are some things which appear to convey the wrong dietary advice. The food pyramid focused on a heavy carb diet with 6-11 servings of Bread/Pasta/Potatoes recommended. Food Pyramid further warned to limit consumption of fats and oils and failed to distinguish healthy fats and oils as well as differentiate between refined grains (white rice, refined flour) and unrefined grains (brown rice, whole wheat). It grouped healthy proteins (fish, poultry, beans, and nuts) into the same category as unhealthy proteins (red meat and processed meat). The food pyramid also significantly emphasized the dairy requirements with 2-3 servings recommended daily. This ultimately led to significantly worse cholesterol level among the population as well as increased rates of heart disease, cancer, inflammation.

Now one might think that this was due to lack of scientific knowledge and as more understanding was developed about the health effects of sugar, red meat, fats and carbohydrates improved food guidelines would be prepared. But the USDA was completely aware that its basis of the food pyramid was wrong when creating the pyramid itself. Nutrition experts at the time were questioning USDA’s stance particularly on fats and red meat with research journals questioning the USDA policies as early as 1977 (a full 15 years before the Food Pyramid was introduced). This combined with research into negative health effects of sugar either being suppressed or being disregarded by the USDA shows that USDA was perfectly aware of these issues.

So why exactly did the USDA, despite prior knowledge on the effects of these foods? Well the reasons why most governmental policies change – money and power. The above industries spent a significant amount of money and time lobbying the government to change their stance and this has seemingly worked.

Let’s take a look a bigger look at the meat industry in particular. The federal government in the mid-1970s shifted towards a policy suggesting decreased meat consumption and shift to poultry and fish in its Dietary Goals of the United States, a comprehensive document outlining the best way to improve health through food consumption. However following increased lobbying efforts from the meat industry, this “decrease consumption of red meat” was changed to 2-3 servings of meat per day instead. Below is a direct quote from the senate committee’s discussion on nutritional guidelines in 1977.

*Representative from American National Cattlemen’s Association (one of the largest lobbying groups for the red meat industry) – “ I would like ¬– I have already stated it, but to make it more specific, I would urge the committee to relook page 13 of the Dietary Goals of the United States, that they carefully reevaluate Nos.2 and 3. We would disagree certainly fully with No.2 (Decrease consumption of meat and increase consumption of fish and poultry) and with the evidence I have seen available I think I would disagree with No.3 (Substitute Polyunsaturated fat with Saturated fat) also.”

Senator Dole (Senate member): “I wonder if you could amend No.2 and say “increase consumption of lean meat” Would that taste better to you?”

Rep for ANCA: “Decrease is a bad word, Senator”*

Following this exchange by the end of the year, the statement on reduction of meat consumption was removed from the 2nd version of the U.S dietary goals and instead “decrease consumption of animal fat, and choose meats, poultry, and fish which will reduce saturated fat intake”. Senator George McGovern, who chaired the committee, was quoted as saying that he “did not want to disrupt the economic situation of the meat industry and engage in a battle with that industry that we could not win.”

The meat processing industry is one of the primary lobbying and contributors to major campaigns of politicians. This culminated in 1992 with the introduction of food pyramid on the horizon, the meat industry (livestock + meat processing industries) raised their total contributions by 50% to reach $3.4 million (Almost double that of dairy, fruit and veg and sugar industries) with the lobbying efforts also rising significantly. This is the third largest rise in lobbying and contributions monetarily by the meat industry in the last 25 years, other than in 2004 (50% to reach $7.3 million) and 2011 (Doubled to reach $13.2 million). This is even discounting any under the table deals that have taken place.

Now one counterpoint to this lobbying effort is that the meat consumption statements remain same in the major published Dietary restrictions from 1977 to 1992. This is true but the key word being published. In April 1991, the USDA began working on the publication of its Eating Right Pyramid as diet-related health problems in the United States shifted in prevalence from nutrient deficiencies to chronic diseases, and dietary advice shifted from “eat more” to “eat less.” However this was halted from publication, due to objections raised by meat and dairy lobbying groups concerning the guide’s display of their products. Despite the USDA’s explanations that the guide required further research and testing, it was not until one year later that the Eating Right Pyramid was officially released (as the Food Pyramid). This time, even the guide’s graphic design was altered to appease industry concerns. This incident was only one of many in which the food industry attempted to alter federal dietary recommendations in their own economic self-interest(Can Download original document). This change surprised even the authors of the original Eating Right Pyramid. According to Luise Light, one of the architects of the original version, “When our version of the Food Guide came back to us revised, we were shocked to find that it was vastly different from the one we had developed. As I later discovered, the wholesale changes made to the guide by the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture were calculated to win the acceptance of the food industry. Our recommendation of 3-4 daily servings of whole-grain breads and cereals was changed to a whopping 6-11 servings forming the base of the Food Pyramid as a concession to the processed wheat and corn industries. Moreover, my nutritionist group had placed baked goods made with white flour — including crackers, sweets and other low-nutrient foods laden with sugars and fats — at the peak of the pyramid, recommending that they be eaten sparingly. To our alarm, in the “revised” Food Guide, they were now made part of the Pyramid’s base. I vehemently protested that the changes, if followed, could lead to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes — and couldn’t be justified on either health or nutritional grounds.” Some chilling predictions about American health which have been pretty on point nearly 30 years later (although the Food Pyramid is obviously not the only factor).

Since the publishing of the Food Pyramid, the USDA has had three significant revisions and introduction of new dietary guidelines. In 2005 the USDA introduced MyPyramid, a document which nutritionists claimed was highly confusing and complicated and difficult to teach. In 2011 (Both of these years are those where lobbying and campaign contributions rose significantly in previous paragraph), the USDA introduced the latest version of its dietary guidelines (MyPlate) as well as a further update in 2015. Both of these were not without controversy with similar lobbying efforts affecting the guidelines. MyPyramid, apart from being complicated, was also plagued by lobbying efforts from the sugar, bread and potato industries. The 1st version of MyPlate was still plagued by lobbying from the meat industry with external guidelines published by Harvard cutting down on proteins including meat as well as significantly increasing the vegetable and fruit consumption. With the MyPlate update In 2015, the USDA comprehensively revamped its dietary guidelines, however they have run into the same issues and objections from the meat industry and other industries as from 1977. The dairy industry in particular has been a major beneficiary of this new guideline.

The next major update to this guideline is set to happen in 2020/2021. Although there have been slight improvements since the 1990s, there has been minimal reduction of the lobbying industry’s impact on the USDA’s guidelines. This is unlikely to change in 2021 and if you want to understand the major beneficiaries of the new guidelines just follow the money in 2020.