MyPyramid Inc.
By Michele Simon

Originally published on Ascribe newswire, April 25, 2021

Last week, the federal government revealed its much-anticipated revision of the “Food Guide Pyramid” - that peculiar icon of nutrition advice that adorns cereal boxes and not much else. By the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s own estimates, while most people (80 percent surveyed) recognize the triangular graphic, a sobering 2 to 4 percent actually follow its principles.

To try and fix this problem, Uncle Sam set out to create a new and improved version. In true government fashion, the job was outsourced to the mega-PR firm, Porter Novelli International. While past clients have included the likes of McDonald’s and the Snack Food Association, the company promised there would be no conflict of interest. 

So what did U.S. taxpayers get for its $2.5 million? Reactions from nutrition experts to the new graphic that contains no actual information - just colored sections and a figure walking up stairs - have been swift and unequivocal: The new “MyPyramid” is certainly no better and may even be worse than the old version. With all of the dietary details now only available via the website, buried deep among too many pages to click through, who on earth is going to bother to take the time?

At the government’s press conference, taking center stage was fitness guru Denise Austin, introduced by USDA Secretary Mike Johanns as a wife and a mother. (Are we still in the 1950s?) Overflowing with energy, Austin implored reporters to join her in a stretching routine. That the federal government’s idea of unveiling a $2.5 million dietary educational tool was reduced to a Jane Fonda video was embarrassing to say the least. But more insidiously, Uncle Sam’s emphasis on physical activity plays right into the hands of the food industry.

In recent months, food companies have come under increasing attack for contributing to public health problems. The main way that industry deflects blame for incessantly promoting unhealthy products is to point to the nation’s couch-potato tendencies. The government has now officially adopted the food industry's argument that exercise is the real answer to the nation’s health woes.

Of course exercise is important, but so are other healthy behaviors, such as getting enough sleep. If one side of the pyramid shows someone walking up stairs to emphasize the importance of exercise, why doesn’t the other side show someone lying down to emphasize the importance of rest? Simply because sleep doesn’t carry the same message of personal responsibility (industry’s mantra) that exercise does.

We need no better sign that the new pyramid is a win for industry than all the ways that major companies are wasting no time applauding it. For example, on the same day as the government press conference, in what must have been accomplished by Photoshop trickery, cereal boxes depicted on General Mills' website already contained the new image. “We want to help communicate these important messages by using some of the best real estate there is,” said John Haugen, of General Mills. “The cereal box is one of the most read items in the home. With cereal consumed in 93 percent of American households, this is a powerful step forward in nutrition education,” he said. How comforting to know that Americans read cereal boxes for their nutrition advice. But the new graphic doesn’t contain any actual information. “Reading” the food pyramid while downing a bowl of Lucky Charms isn’t exactly what most nutritionists would call either sound education or a recommended dietary practice.

Snack food and beverage giant PepsiCo also jumped on the bandwagon with an ad touting the new graphic in USA Today, just two days after the government release. In its statement, the company said the food guidelines highlight energy balance as a key concept in maintaining health. “Energy balance” is the food industry’s subtle way of promoting their over-simplified calories-in / calories-out message. This conveniently sidesteps any education regarding the actual nutritional content of the calories, since that could result in people avoiding the food giant’s unhealthy products.

Also last week, a press release from the Grocery Manufacturers of America (the packaged food industry’s powerful lobbying organization) proudly announced its plans to promote the new pyramid to students, teachers, and families. The trade group also took credit for the old icon’s 80 percent recognition rate, saying it is “due, in part, to the efforts of the food and beverage industry.” Seems they weren’t interested in taking credit for how 96-98 percent of people don’t follow it.

The very name MyPyramid tells us the government is squarely placing all responsibility for eating right with you and me. Never mind those pesky government subsidies and tax breaks to big agribusiness and food manufacturers that make unhealthy food so cheap and ubiquitous. Thank goodness Uncle Sam has now created a website to counter all that.

Now that the pyramid has been completely hijacked by the food industry and promises to be as useless an educational tool as it ever was, it’s time to hang up the effort altogether. Just think of all the money government could save in addition to $2.5 million if it really wanted to improve America’s eating habits: no more paying for expensive PR firms, corporate welfare, high healthcare costs, or fitness bimbos.

Michele Simon, a public health attorney who teaches health policy at UC Hastings College of the Law, directs the Center for Informed Food Choices, a nonprofit in Oakland, Calif.