Is the USDA's New Symbol of Dietary Correctness a Coup for the Dairy Industry?
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MyPlate, the USDA's new symbol of dietary correctness, was unveiled on June 2. It replaces the agency's Eating Right Pyramid (est. 1992), which succeeded the Four Basic Food Groups (1956). Those four in turn represented a consolidation of the seven food groups the agency pushed in the 1940s, themselves pared down from 12 during the Great Depression, when many people would have been happy to find even a single food group on their plates.
The USDA's first nutrition guide was published in 1916, a year after the National Dairy Council was founded. The dairy industry has worked tirelessly with (and on) the USDA ever since -- an investment that has paid many dividends, including dairy's privileged perch as one of only four basic food groups. And despite zero scientific basis that a healthy diet requires dairy, the stuff has managed to maintain its position as a key dietary recommendation on each successive symbol du jour, through the pyramid days and on to today's MyPlate graphic.
In fact, the MyPlate paradigm is practically a repeat of the Four Food Groups, with only three discernible tweaks.
The "meat and fish" group has been generalized to "protein." This is barely even a change, and more of a semantic adjustment to reality given how many ways there are to get your fill of essential amino acids without meat.
The grain group made the transition from to MyPlate relatively unscathed, with an added piece of advice to eat more whole grains. It's worth mentioning that plenty of "Paleo diet" followers, not to mention the Atkins crowd, seem to do fine without grains as well. And if you avoid grains and sugars, it's practically impossible to get fat.
The most substantial change to the dietary recommendations is the "fruit and vegetable" category, which has been split in two. Fully half of the USDA's new plate consists of fruit and vegetables. This is an audacious goal considering how few Americans currently come close to consuming that ratio. If taken to heart by enough people, this change alone could have profound effects on public health.
By including recommendations against oversized portions, and generalizing the protein group, the USDA has managed to distance itself from the influence of special interests like the meat and fast-food industries. But it remains clearly beholden to dairy.
This brings us to the third discernible difference from the four food groups: the MyPlate symbol includes a little circle next to the plate that looks like a glass of milk. Labeled "Dairy," it stands for three daily servings of dairy, including cheese, yogurt, milk, and other processed secretions of mammary glands, usually bovine.
In response to MyPlate's debut the dairy industry took a victory lap, with press releases from various dairy-oriented think tanks and trade groups praising the new symbol.
"USDA's new MyPlate, the simple visual metaphor of a serving of dairy products alongside a plate, says it's vital to consume three servings of low-fat and fat-free dairy foods every day," gloated Jerry Kozak, president of the National Milk Producers Federation, as he tacitly reveals how the new guidelines seem tailored to encourage maximum dairy industry profitability.
Three servings of dairy per day would be an increase for most Americans, who currently consume an average of two. Encouraging Americans to eat low-fat and nonfat milk products means even more profit, because the fat skimmed off is then processed into butter and other marketable products. The more items you can sell from a single gallon of milk, the more money you make, which is why as far as the dairy industry is concerned the MyPlate cup might as well be full of champagne: the industry has convinced USDA to recommend increased consumption of a product that's not only unnecessary, but is actually bad for most people.