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USDA Shifts Food Pyramid’s Geometry

April 16, 2005

Apr. 16–WASHINGTON–In trying to replace the famous food pyramid, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has made a bold though risky decision.

When USDA officials unveil their new food guidance program in the next few days, it will include an updated icon to replace the current pyramid, though USDA officials are remaining mum on its design. But whether it’s a pyramid, rectangle or rhombus, the new symbol won’t include a comprehensive diet plan, as the current pyramid does.

Rather, the graphic will be part of a larger Food Guidance System and will include just a few motivational slogans–urging consumers, for instance, to count calories and exercise regularly. The details of the nutritional advice will be explained in printed material and on a revamped, interactive Web site.

“The reason we talk about it as a food guidance system is, no one graphic can carry 23 recommendations,” said Eric Hentges, executive director of the department’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, who is overseeing the project. “You can’t hang all the necessary information on one graphic. It just won’t work.”

While recognizing the difficulties of reversing American eating habits, several nutrition and marketing experts said the USDA’s upcoming announcement is fraught with peril. If the USDA abandons the pyramid, recognized by 80 percent of Americans, will it lose its connection with the public? And will the public ignore a diet plan that is too complicated to be contained on a refrigerator magnet?

“If you have to go look on the Internet to find details, that’s not going to have much impact on what people consume,” said Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard University who devised his own pyramid based on what he believes are healthier foods. “There’s a reality that we have to convey what are the most important issues in a simple way. The key messages can’t be buried in fine print.”

Willard Bishop Jr., a food retail consultant based in Barrington, likened the pyramid to a highly successful brand name that consumers associate with the government trying to help them.

“I don’t think most people understand it, but they know it exists,” Bishop said. “The risk of losing your brand equity is losing your relevance.”

However, Bishop said if the USDA provides a “ladder” to easily bridge the gap between the new graphic icon and the details of the Food Guidance System, “this could be an exceptionally powerful program.”

“The devil will be in what the ladder looks like,” he said.

Agriculture Department officials had similar ambitions in 1992 when they unveiled the food pyramid along with a 32-page booklet of more detailed nutrition advice. But few nutrition professionals or consumers were aware of the booklet, and as a result the public came to depend almost entirely on the food pyramid for federal nutrition advice.

The pyramid is being revamped because it is considered confusing and contains outdated–some say unhealthy– advice. More important, the pyramid’s advice has been largely ignored by the public.

Department officials have revealed few details of how they will motivate the public to move beyond the new graphic symbol and seek out more nutrition information on the Internet or elsewhere.

The USDA is counting on media coverage of its unveiling to help publicize the Food Guidance System, since it has a negligible budget to do so on its own. And Hentges said he also is counting on the food industry to create healthier products that will make it easier for Americans to follow the federal advice.

Despite the secrecy surrounding the Food Guidance System, particularly about the new symbol, there’s little mystery about what the government will recommend for good health.

Its advice will be based on a 71-page booklet, “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005,” released in January that resulted from a 1 1/2-year examination of the latest science by a panel of experts.

The guidelines make 23 key recommendations, along with 18 more targeted for specific groups such as the elderly and overweight children. They include eating vastly more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, limiting unhealthy fats, salt and added sugar and exercising for as much as 90 minutes per day to stay fit.

But the dietary guidelines were intended, not for the public, but for educators and nutritionists and for government bureaucrats who oversee federal nutrition programs like school lunches.

The Food Guidance System is supposed to distill those 71 pages of findings into a much more consumer-friendly message.

So while the dietary guidelines provided a blueprint for healthy lifestyles, the Food Guidance System is expected to perform the much harder task of persuading Americans, two-thirds of whom are overweight or obese, to change their behavior.

While remaining cagey on the details, Hentges said the Food Guidance System will include three elements: a graphic to motivate Americans to seek out healthier lifestyles, an educational framework to detail how to do so, and a set of interactive tools to enable individuals to receive personalized health and nutritional data.

Hentges said the problem with the food pyramid is that all of the federal advice was lumped into one symbol. If someone did not understand the content, and many did not, then the food pyramid didn’t work for them.

As an example, he pointed out that while the pyramid recommends 6 to 11 servings of grains, it doesn’t explain that the number of servings isn’t a matter of personal choice; rather, it depends upon the different caloric needs of individuals. In addition, he said many Americans are confused about what a single serving size means.

The new Food Guidance System will provide people seeking a healthier lifestyle a much more specific action plan, officials said. And it should be easier to decipher; for instance, serving sizes will be listed in household measures such as ounces and cups.

Bill Layden, director of food and nutrition practice at the public relations firm Edelman Worldwide, said he agreed that it was unrealistic to expect a simple icon to convey enough information for Americans to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Layden pointed out that oversimplified diet plans–such as no-fat and low-carb diets–have already caused enough trouble.

“There’s no question that the pyramid that we knew did not achieve its objectives,” Layden said, but added, “We don’t expect people to learn how to drive a car by looking at a brochure. We shouldn’t expect people to learn how to eat by looking at a brochure either.”

Layden, who used to direct the nutrition promotion staff at the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, said he hopes the department keeps using the pyramid shape to induce Americans to seek out more information about maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

“There are very few brands that have achieved the level of recognition and awareness as the pyramid,” he said, adding, “The idea of perhaps providing a device that will prompt people to learn more could be very successful.”

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, suggested that while advice on the current pyramid is flawed, the shape itself “has a lot going for it” and could be salvaged with some minor tweaking.

“Personally, I don’t think it’s all that hard to advise people to eat less [watch portion size], move more, and eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,” said Nestle, the author of “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health,” in an e-mail. “But if the USDA did that, they might have to say what to eat less of and therein lies the problem.

“The pyramid needs to be interpreted as saying, ‘eat more from the bottom and less from the top,’” she added. “Less from the top means fewer junk foods–snacks, sodas, candy and the like. The USDA can’t say that, except indirectly, or the makers of those foods would get upset.”

Hentges has repeatedly denied that the food industry has influenced the process.

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