USDA Demolishing the Food Pyramid | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

USDA Demolishing the Food Pyramid

The USDA began offering nutritional advice in 1894. We had 12 food groups in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, four in the 1950s, then a pyramid and now a plate

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The 2005 food pyramid design, to be retired this Thursday. Image courtesy of the USDA.

Some of the information I learned in school isn’t holding up so well. Pluto is no longer a planet; the basics of CPR have been heavily revised, so I am now the absolute last person you want around in the event of an emergency (though I will be more than happy to dial 911 on your behalf). And now the USDA is razing the food pyramid to make way for a new visual model intended to help Americans figure out how to plan a balanced diet. Set to be unveiled on June 2, the new graphic will be circular in shape. Science 2.0 compared the yet-to-be-released model to a pie, which is a counterintuitive visual given the Obama administration’s devotion to fighting obesity. But officially, we are to consider the new graphic as a dinner plate—which is a little more intuitive and hits closer to home than those monuments of Giza.

Introduced in 1992, the pyramid model had a good run. But it has come under fire for being oversimplified: it visually communicates that people should eat more carbs because they’re good and eat less fat because it’s bad, sidestepping the issue that there are good and bad carbs and fats. Furthermore, with the USDA promoting American food products, lobby groups—notably cattle and dairy special interest groups—complained about how their goods were placed toward the top of the chart, nearer to the foodstuffs one is supposed to use sparingly. The pyramid was revamped in 2005 to a more politically correct graphic that tried to communicate the proportion of each food group people should have in their diet. Furthermore, the color-coded horizontal bands didn’t try to subliminally indicate that some foods are inherently better than others. This redesign drew fire from potato lobbyists since spuds were de-emphasized in the new graphic. Furthermore, you needed to use the USDA website to get any concrete nutrition advice since the image itself didn’t offer any specific advice regarding servings and portion sizes.

A Daily Food Guide. This graphic illustrates the four food group system that preceded the food pyramid model.

The USDA began offering nutritional guides in 1894, which have been tinkered with and updated over the years. We had 12 food groups in the 1930s, and when that system was deemed overly complicated, it was reduced to seven in the 1940s, and for the first time the government suggested how many servings from each group a person should have. This was succeeded by the basic four food group system—milk, veggies and fruits, meats and bread—in 1956, which endured until the pyramid model was introduced in 1992. And of course there are lots of fun posters and other visuals the USDA used to attractively package nutrition information and grab public attention.

The grand unveiling of the new plate-shaped food guide will take place on tomorrow, June 2, at 10:30 A.M. EST and the event will be streamed live.

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