Environment

Food Pyramid Scheme

The food industry's fingerprints are all over the USDA's new food pyramid, in ways that hurt rather than help consumers.
Many of us greeted the unveiling of the government's new food pyramid earlier this week with a mixture of puzzlement and confusion. Indeed, the dizzying layers of rainbow-colored lines helped distract from the fact that the food industry's fingerprints are all over the new dietary guidelines--in ways that hurt rather than help consumers.

What most people don't realize is that the USDA's original vision for the pyramid included visual indicators to show people how often they should eat certain foods. Pastries and donuts, for example, would be marked "occasional." But these guidelines are now nowhere to be found in the new MyPyramid, thanks to giant food corporations and their lobbyists.

Perhaps the most glaring evidence of the industry's influence is the government's refusal to recommend which foods not to eat, while putting a strong emphasis on individual responsibility. The only mention of unhealthy foods in new dietary guidelines is a gentle reminder to "know the limits on fats, sugars and salts." Also missing are recommendations limiting the amount of food people eat. Considering that 28 percent of American men and 34 percent of women are obese, this omission is especially troubling.

But it doesn't stop there. The government didn't budget for a PR campaign to get the word out about its new nutritional guidelines. So guess who's coming to the rescue? The food industry. McDonald's, General Mills, Philip Morris/Altria's Kraft Foods, and other food titans barely waited for the ink to dry on the new guidelines before volunteering their own PR machines to "raise awareness." The Grocery Manufacturers of America--with members like Cargill and Philip Morris/Altria--also jumped in, offering to distribute posters and guides to reach four million kids.

The large majority of food industry advertising spending goes toward aggressive promotion of sodas, candy, junk food snacks, alcoholic beverages and high-sugar desserts. In contrast, Big Food spends an insignificant amount marketing the main pillars of the food pyramid: fruits, vegetables, beans and grains.

We would feel uneasy giving Big Tobacco the reins to a government-sponsored tobacco control campaign. We should feel equally uneasy about the food industry's heavy-handed involvement in the government's official dietary guidelines.

America's obesity epidemic is now the nation's second leading cause of preventable deaths. U.S. government guidelines on food and nutrition should provide specific recommendations to limit foods high in sugar and salt, which can contribute to obesity and other serious health problems including diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

My organization is currently supporting national and international regulations that would hold food manufacturers accountable for their contributions to the global obesity epidemic. We are working toward the implementation of the World Health Organization's Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, specifically measures to curtail the promotion of junk food and inform consumers about the dangers of foods high in sugar, salt and fat.

The USDA food pyramid is a trusted American icon that many of us first encounter in grade school. It then follows us throughout adulthood as we become parents ourselves, responsible for planning meals for our families. Something so essential to our well-being shouldn't fall into the hands of the food industry -- or any other private industry whose bottom line could conflict with what's best for our health. That's what makes the food industry's incredible influence over the government's dietary guidelines so hard to stomach.