In the 1990s, the Food Pyramid was one of the most recognizable symbols in nutrition education. But where did it come from? Why was it created by the agriculture department? And why did it tell us to eat a whole loaf of bread every day?
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Aubrey: Do you know what I realized? I was listening back to The Daily Harvest episode. I realized I think you and I are becoming the US Weekly of food regulation agencies and public health and nutrition academia. Do you what I mean?
Aubrey: It really feels we're getting a little bit like, "You know what I heard?"
Michael: Oh, yeah. Federal regulators, they're just like us.
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Aubrey: I'm Aubrey Gordon.
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Michael: You should host some podcast along those lines.
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Michael: And today, we are talking about the food pyramid.
Aubrey: We are talking about the food pyramid, Michael. What is your personal relationship to the food pyramid?
Michael: Well, I feel the food pyramid is this interesting artifact, where it's like the official government recommendation on food, which means that people are vaguely aware of it, but also, it seems to exert no influence. The government does not have the propaganda apparatus that like the Gatorade and McDonald's people have. I'm not totally clear on what it actually says. I know there's been various controversies around it.
Aubrey: Oh, my God.
Michael: I also know that when we grew up, it was the four food groups, right? And then, it was the food pyramid and now it's MyPlate. So, they keep tweaking this.
Aubrey: Yes, sort of.
Aubrey: The food pyramid was an educational tool developed with the rollout of a publication called Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which comes out about every five years. It's regularly updated. It's a very lengthy government report. I read one that was 168 pages-
Aubrey: -and it's designed to lay out the USDA nutritional best practices. The food pyramid and MyPlate are illustrations of those best practices. But the document is way more complex than that because that document is the foundation for all government nutrition programs.
Michael: Right. So, when I say that it exerts very little influence on Americans, what that really means is that very few Americans eat individually according to the food pyramid, but also in some ways, we're all eating according to the food pyramid- [crosstalk]
Aubrey: -this affects like school lunches, veterans' meal programs, senior meal programs, prisons, all the other places where the government is involved.
Aubrey: The USDA's Human Nutrition Information Service, HNIS, which we'll talk about a fair amount in this episode, wanted to develop something that was peer reviewed, scientifically sound, and easy for people to use. Something that people could actually pick up and use and would know what to do with it. You're at the grocery store, you're trying to figure out what to buy, and they want to give you some guidance on, "Think about these things more than these things."
Michael: It's hot or not or macronutrients.
Michael: Just swiping left or right.
Aubrey: There are lots and lots of food pyramids. Sweden has one, Singapore has one, India has one. The first person to come up with the idea of creating a food pyramid as a nutrition education was a massively influential figure in food and nutrition in Sweden. Her name is Anna-Britt Agnsäter.
Michael: Oh, look at you chirping. Look at your pronunciation.
Aubrey: Look at me making my Swedish friend listen to me say it 50 times. [laughs]
Michael: [imitating foreign pronunciations]
Aubrey: So, Anna Britt Agnsäter comes up with her food pyramid in the 1970s in Sweden.
Michael: Or diet.
Aubrey: Her food pyramid has just three layers. She goes, "Pick the most about these things, a little bit less about these things, and a little bit less about these things at the top."
Michael: Do we have a sense why she called it a food pyramid and not a food triangle?
Michael: [crosstalk] pyramid and it's driven me nuts for 25 years.
Aubrey: I didn't find anything about it. As you can imagine, most of the stuff on her is written in Swedish, which I do not read.
Michael: Oh, okay. Yeah.
Aubrey: That's our original food pyramid. The one that we're going to talk about today is the 1991 to 1992 food pyramid. We'll talk about why there are two years in there. I'm going to send you a picture.
Michael: Oh, yes. God, the flashback.
Aubrey: Is it all coming back?
Michael: Yeah. First of all, they have a little gray shadow on it to make it look 3D, [Aubrey laughs] but it's a fucking triangle.
Aubrey: You're so mad about the shape.
Michael: Just so we're all clear [Aubrey laughs] it's the food triangle.
Aubrey: Oh, man.
Michael: At the top, it says fats oils and sweets - use sparingly. That's layer one. Layer two is milk, yogurt, and cheese - two to three servings. Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts - two to three servings. The third layer is vegetables - three to five servings. Fruit - two to four servings. And then, the bottom layer, the widest is bread, cereal, rice, and pasta - 6 to 11 servings. So, we should be eating very little fat and sweet stuff and we should be eating a lot of carb, ricey stuff.
Aubrey: What do you think about this food pyramid, Mike?
Michael: As we've talked about so many times, no one knows what they're eating or can recall it and no one knows what a serving of any food is.
Michael: So, if you add up all of these things, we're talking about, I don't know, 20 to 25 servings of food a day, which if you go by the absurd serving sizes that they have on nutrition labels where it's a half a cup of fucking blueberries or whatever is the serving, then, sure, I don't know, that's probably reasonable advice. But 25 servings of food a day seems a lot of food just on a colloquial level.
Aubrey: Yeah, I will say people who have been through the meat grinder of diets are absolutely envisioning what I am envisioning right now, which is "A serving of meat is the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand."
Aubrey: The thing that really jumps out to me about this is that, A, of course, from a graphic design standpoint, it screams early 1990s.
Aubrey: But B, the low fatness is what jumped out to me.
Michael: Yeah, it's [crosstalk]
Aubrey: Looking at this, it feels so distinctly 1990s, because beans and nuts are up toward the top of the food pyramid, which is very different to how we think about them now and that's just because high in calories. The end.
Michael: Also, if you look visually, it goes from six servings at the bottom to three servings to two servings, which then implies that the things at the top are one serving a day.
Michael: But if it's fat, oils, and sweets, you're really supposed to be using very little fat and oil, I guess, when you're cooking or butter on bread.
Aubrey: It's goofy. And putting cooking oil in the same category as desserts is weird, because cooking oil, you're going to use in multiple meals a day.
Aubrey: The decision points here feel a little murky as well, right?
Aubrey: So, today, we're going to talk about how we got the 1991 to 1992 food pyramid, which was at the time, one of the most controversial public health documents, I would say.
Michael: Because of the triangles?
Aubrey: Because of the tri-- Because it's not a fucking pyramid.
Michael: Yeah. [laughs]
Aubrey: Riddle me this, Batman.
Michael: That would be justice.
Aubrey: [laughs] So, we're going to get in the Wayback Machine. We're going to talk about how we got nutrition guidelines broadly in the US.
Aubrey: What was the lead-up to this 1991 controversial.
Aubrey: The first USDA nutrition guidelines came out in 1894.
Michael: Oh, okay.
Aubrey: They were written by someone we have talked about before on the show whose name is Wilbur Olin Atwater.
Michael: Oh, this was the fire guy, right?
Aubrey: This was the burn up your food and find how many calories are in it guy.
Aubrey: Atwater was the USDA is first chief of nutrition investigations. He's the first guy in the Department of Agriculture to start investigating nutrition. He writes his guidelines. Those come out in 1894, as a farmer's bulletin and he mostly focuses on basic food groups. The main problem at this point in US nutrition is that people are not eating a wide enough variety of foods.
Aubrey: Food wasn't being shipped in the same way that it's being shipped now. That was a rich people thing. You were eating what was growing around you and what was made around you and your local climate may only accommodate some kinds of foods. So, they were trying to get people to think more broadly about what they were eating. So, he gives his guidance, and he talks about the importance of fat and protein and carbohydrates and like, "You got to get all these things in." He also talks about mineral matter in your body.
Michael: Is he about to invent the BioCharger?
Aubrey: [laughs] No, his argument was that the way that you got minerals into your body was by eating charred foods.
Michael: Oh, he's like a Maillard guy.
Aubrey: He's like, "Burn the shit out of your vegetables and then eat them. That's your mineral matter. Your bones need it."
Michael: I think he just liked Brussels sprouts better that way and he came up with a whole worldview.
Aubrey: So. Atwater release his bulletin and that's the end of that. It's not until 1941 that broad consumer guidance starts to become more of a thing. In 1941, the US releases its first set of recommended dietary allowances. So, RDAs, which are the things when you look on a nutrition facts panel in the US-
Michael: Oh, right.
Aubrey: -you will raw numbers and then you'll see percentages of like, "Here's how much you're supposed to get of that thing."
Michael: Right, with the asterisk. Yeah.
Aubrey: The asterisk. Rationing is also happening during this time.
Michael: Oh, right.
Aubrey: So, during World War II, there is a national war time nutrition guide. And afterward, they just go, "You know what? Actually, we're just going to keep all the nutrition guidance in there and just say, 'This is how you eatnow.'"
Aubrey: It included seven food groups called the Basic 7. It was generally regarded as being too complex to use. People were like, "There's too many food groups. This is too many servings." They were going from zero to a lot of very specific guidance in this document. In the mid-50s, that gets shifted to a guide called Food for Fitness that focuses on four food groups. So, fruits and vegetables become one food group together, stuff like that. It's not really until 1977 that the US government approach to nutrition shifts from trying to get people to eat more to trying to get people to eat less. This is when that narrative shift happens. When the conversation gets less precise, honestly. Some of it is eat less fats and sugars and some of it is just like, eat less period. Internally, they refer to it as the Eat Less Pyramid when they're developing the food pyramid.
Michael: Oh, wow. Okay.
Aubrey: Yeah, wild as hell. That brings us to the real ramp up to what I know is a favorite of mine and of yours, a big interagency fight.
Michael: Ooh, getting jurisdictional on them.
Aubrey: So, in 1977, the US dietary goals, that big guideline overarching document that we talked about earlier starts getting some pressure to address the rising costs of healthcare through individual nutrition guidance. So, that seems real weird to me.
Michael: Right. If your concern is with the cost of healthcare, the first place to start would be the healthcare system.
Aubrey: Fucking correct.
Michael: Not necessarily, "We need to tell people what to eat."
Aubrey: And the one hundred or fewer decision-makers at the top of that healthcare system. Not millions of individuals whose attention you're going to have to scrap and fight to get. So, Congress decides that nutrition research needs to have a permanent and lasting home in the US government, which it didn't really at the time. There are two agencies in contention. One is the US Department of Agriculture, the USDA, and the other is the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, which is now HHS.
Michael: HEW? It was called HEW?
Michael and Aubrey: DHEW. DHEW. DHEW.
Aubrey: It just makes you sound like the person who pronounces the W in sword or the H in hoit.
Aubrey: So, just as some grounding HHS' mission today is "to enhance the health and wellbeing of all Americans by providing for effective health and human services and by fostering sound sustained advances in the sciences underlying medicine, public health, and social services." That feels very nutrition compatible to me.
Michael: Oh, I see where you're going, because the USDA exists to promote agriculture.
Aubrey: It's overwhelmingly focused on maintaining relationships with and meeting the needs of the agriculture industry.
Michael: Man, I am so glad I cut this out of the food poisoning episode.
Aubrey: Did you have this in there?
Michael: Yeah, because this comes up a lot in the food poisoning literature that the USDA has a dual mandate that promotes that it needs to promote American agricultural products, i.e., we should all be eating as much as possible at all times, because that's good for the farmers, because we're buying milk and buying cheese and spending money. And also, it's supposed to be regulating the same farms and making sure that they're safe and giving out information to Americans to eat less.
Aubrey: So, in 1977, Congress passes the farm bill. In that farm bill, they wrap up this question of like, where is nutrition education going to live and they pick the USDA.
Michael: The worst possible place.
Aubrey: It just seems weird. It seems like a weird bad choice.
Michael: So, not the people that do health, the people who do farm stuff.
Aubrey: Totally. So, Marion Nestle has a little passage and an essay that she wrote about this, where she explains a little bit of what was the landscape at the time around this decision?
Michael: It says, "Members of the Select Committee representing states with large meat, dairy, and egg producer constituencies demanded changes in the dietary goals. The committee revised the report and published a second edition in which among other changes, the original statement decreased consumption of meat and increased consumption of poultry and fish was altered to read decrease consumption of animal fat and choose meats, poultry, and fish, which will reduce saturated fat intake."
Aubrey: You can hear the industry influence. Rather than saying stop eating meat and eat more poultry and fish, they said, "Choose your meats wisely and make sure that it will help your saturated fat intake," which most Americans at this point don't have any idea what the fuck that means.
Michael: Yeah, this sentence doesn't even make sense. Decrease consumption of animal fat and choose meats, poultry, and fish which will reduce saturated fat intake. How can eating something reduce?
Aubrey: It's bonkers.
Michael: It's just weird to not say, choose foods low in saturated fats.
Aubrey: It's bizarre and I think this is another layer in the science communications is hard element of this story, which is its way the fuck harder when you're trying to serve so many different people's interests. So, that's the landscape around this decision. Within a few short years, the USDA's Human Nutrition Information Service, that's HNIS, HNIS.
Aubrey: HNIS starts in on making their dietary guide for the public. This is what will become the 1991 food pyramid. They are starting it in 1980.
Michael: [chuckles] Oh, no.
Aubrey: If you want to get a sense of how fucking long--
Michael: Oh, my God.
Aubrey: Michael, we are on page 6 of 19 pages of notes for-- [laughs]
Michael: The whole time was like, should they be circles or triangles of 11 years back and forth.
Aubrey: Okay. So, it's very fucking funny, because the first thing they come up with is called the food wheel.
Aubrey: They did temporarily choose circles. And ultimately, the biggest battle here is totally going to be a battle between a three-dimensional circle and a three-dimensional triangle.
Michael: The food sphere, Americans.
Michael: The food orb.
Aubrey: They started on making this in-- The early 1980s, they come up with this food wheel graphic, but people-- They kept testing it out and people were like, "I don't understand."
Michael: Wait, can you send it to me? I love terrible graphic design.
Aubrey: You love bad graphics? Hang on.
Aubrey: Let me see if I have it handy. Boop, boop, boop, boop, boop.
Michael: Oh, my God, this looks so good.
Michael: Oh, the drop shadows.
Aubrey: Totally. There's forced perspective, food wheel.
Michael: It looks like the He Man logo.
Michael: That's what it looks like is the opening of an 80s Saturday morning cartoon. The palette whips.
Aubrey: Yeah, it's the Superman lettering is what they have food wheel in.
Aubrey: More or less, they've got that kind of effect on it. And basically, it's a pie chart, but they've put forks and knives next to it to be like, "You know how you always arrange your food into pie chart wedges?"
Michael: Yeah, into little triangles-
Aubrey: On your plate.
Michael: My grains and eggs.
Aubrey: Then they've done a bunch of weird like whooshy graphic effects out of each one.
Michael: Yeah, the attempt at 3D-
Michael: -is by far the worst thing about this. They're trying to make them like pop out of the wheel, but it just makes them look smudged.
Aubrey: I wonder if we would like it more if we had on those red and green 3D glasses, red and blue.
Michael: Yeah. [laughs] That's what it looks like.
Aubrey: Apparently, it looks like we should be like-- Yeah, at a drive-in wearing those red and blue cardboard glasses.
Michael: The only difference I can see in the content between this and the food pyramid is that this has alcohol on it-
Aubrey: It does have alcohol.
Michael: -in the use sparingly wedge.
Aubrey: The good guidance is pretty similar. It's not super-duper different. But those pie charts have dashed lines in them to divide them up into subcategories, right?
Michael: Right. Yeah.
Aubrey: So, you have 6 to 11 servings of grains, but they have a dashed line suggesting that half of those should be whole grains and half of them should be enriched grains.
Michael: Oh, yeah.
Aubrey: They've got fruits that are divided up into different subcategories of fruit that just makes it visually cluttered and harder to imagine taking with you to the grocery store.
Michael: This is kind of the central dilemma about science communications, is-
Michael: -how much information do you want to include? Because obviously, these things are fairly important distinctions.
Michael: But the more of these distinctions you add, the more just visual soup you're going to end up with.
Aubrey: Totally. So, they try out the food wheel. The food wheel's a disaster. People are just like, "What are you handing me? What is this? What am I supposed to do with it? "
Michael: So, this actually went out [crosstalk] behind the scenes. This actually was official advice from USDA?
Aubrey: In 1984, they used it for like a year or two and then people were like, "Nope, just kidding." So, in 1988, they decide to hire a PR firm to come up with and test different graphics. That PR firm starts testing graphics and they land on the pyramid. And that same year, Congress reconsiders their division of labor between USDA and HHS. Ultimately, Congress reaffirms that the USDA should be the lead agency.
Michael: [chuckles] They're like, "We thought about it. We're fine." [laughs]
Aubrey: "We were right the first time."
Michael: On reflection.
Aubrey: So, they say the USDA is still the lead agency, but that HHS and the USDA need to collaborate enough to speak with one voice.
Michael: Oh, man, as a former NGO person, I'm just like-- [crosstalk]
Aubrey: It's a tall order to speak with one voice.
Michael: We're going to have everyone be in charge.
Aubrey: Get out the RC chart. Find out who's accountable, responsible, consulted, informed.
Michael: The number of projects I've worked on where it's not clear who's in charge and it's like when agency is doing it, but it has to consult with the other agency and it's like, "What the fuck does that mean?"
Aubrey: Boy, oh, boy.
Michael: I can see the jurisdictional disaster coming. [laughs]
Aubrey: It's bad. So, now we're fast forwarding to 1991. The HNIS staff has been working on the food pyramid for three years now and they have vetted the shit out of it. According to Food Politics, Marion Nestle's book, Food Politics, that food pyramid was reviewed by 36 nutrition experts outside of the agency. It was presented at 20 conferences. They were interviewed by 20 different media outlets about it. They met with over 30 textbook publishers to be like, "New guidance is coming out."
They sent their full manuscript, and the graphic design, and everything through the USDA's whole intensive clearance process and they got approval at every level. At this point, again, they've been working on this project for 11 years. In February of 1991, they finally get their final approval and they send their pages to the printer. Pages go to the printer in February, they'll be back by the end of April. In March, there's a new USDA Secretary onboarded.
Michael: Oh, my God.
Michael: I know you well enough to know that you're giving me these little details and-
Aubrey: -in all matters.
Michael: -that leads up to some huge problem. Exactly.
Aubrey: We have been in episodes like, "Hey, Aubrey, what month did that go to the printer?" [laughs]
Michael: Yeah, tell me more about the sending it off to the printer process.
Aubrey: So, Ed Madigan becomes the new Secretary of Agriculture in March of 1991. He had been a Republican member of Congress since 1972. So, he knows his way around Congress and he's also been a fierce advocate for farmers, particularly dairy farmers.
Michael: Okay. Foreshadowing.
Aubrey: This is when things start to happen really quickly. On Wednesday, April 10th, this is how quickly, the New York Times releases a story saying that a health advocacy group called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine sent a letter to the USDA saying, "Hey, by the way, what if you made your whole nutrition guidance vegetarian?"
Aubrey: Yeah, they were like, "We know that animal fats are not great for people. What if you just made it all-- We think the responsible thing is to make a vegetarian." The meat lobby loses its collective fucking shit. The guy who is lobbying now for the pork lobby is a previous USDA Secretary himself. He calls even the suggestion that there would be vegetarian nutrition guidance "the height of irresponsibility."
Michael: This whole fucking thing seems like a Veep episode to me, where it's like this group issues a letter, but the group is not even that important. We're not talking about JAMA or something. We're talking to like a random group and it's like, "Everyone could have just ignored this letter."
Aubrey: Yeah. The weirdest thing about this whole fucking firestorm is that it starts because a group of doctors sent a letter to the USDA being like, "Have you thought about vegetarianism?" So, this becomes a very big news story. Marion Nestle describes this as front-page news for the next year.
Aubrey: One year. Three days later, Malcolm Gladwell writes a follow-up story when he was a fucking reporter for The Washington Post.
Michael: Oh, no. Throw Malcolm Gladwell into the-- Jesus Christ. Spin the wheel.
Michael: Malcolm Gladwell. Sure.
Aubrey: [laughs] He quotes a nutrition professor from Columbia and he quotes the researcher behind the Framingham Heart Study, both of whom said like, "A vegetarian thing sounds great. That sounds like a good idea and it seems in line with what we know about nutrition, if your animal products seem good."
Aubrey: At this point, they've ordered the printing of the food pyramid, but it hasn't been released yet. The Gladwell piece includes discussion of the food pyramid and what's in the food pyramid.
Michael: So, basically, he breaks news in that Washington Post story by actually revealing the contents of the food pyramid, which people did not know before.
Aubrey: Yeah, that story came out the weekend that the cattlemen's association was having its annual meeting in DC.
Aubrey: On Monday, the cattlemen have their scheduled meeting with the Secretary of Agriculture, Ed Madigan, who's brand new on the job and this is how Marion Nestle describes that meeting. Boop.
Michael: "According to one account, the Secretary had also learned of the pyramid for the first time in Saturday's paper. 'I bet a lot of you were surprised,' he said to the ranchers, when he walked into their April 15th meeting. 'I'm the secretary of agriculture and I was surprised too.' The cattleman complaints that the pyramid would cause people to eat less meat and that meat should not be displayed so close to fat and sugars. They joined the National Milk Producers Federation in demanding that the USDA withdraw the pyramid." Ah, so that's what they're mad about.
Aubrey: It makes them look bad. And over the next two weeks, one trade association after the next, one lobbyist after the next joins in these increasingly forceful protests.
Michael: This does remind me of so many NGO processes I've gone through, where you go through months and months of sending things around and getting comments and changing it. And you finally come up with this totally anodyne thing and then somebody's boss finds out about it, and is like, "Well, we can have this," and then you have this freak-out when you have two days to produce the document.
Aubrey: Or the boss will be like, "I've got a way better idea for how to solve this problem. It's not a document. It's a new organization. Let's found it."
Aubrey: And also, a thing that we fucking skated past is the USDA secretary telling the cattlemen in their meeting, "Oh, it's the first time I'm seeing it."
Michael: It's a weird lie to be like, "I've never even seen this."
Aubrey: So, the next piece that Malcolm fucking Gladwell writes is a little less than two weeks later, it's Saturday, April 27th. And the headline of that piece is, "US drops new food chart."
Aubrey: Secretary Ed Madigan pulls the food pyramid from the printer and says, "Oh, there's a bunch of testing we didn't do to make sure that it's effective. We have to test it on children."
Michael: Oh, my God. So, he's not even admitting that like, "Yeah, we're getting yelled at. So, we're changing what we're doing."
Aubrey: Nope and people were like, "We didn't test it on children, because children were never the audience."
Michael: Yeah, because children are not creating their own food and shopping for themselves. So, it doesn't even make any sense.
Aubrey: It's very clearly an excuse. All of the media at the time is just like, "USDA caves to industry pressure."
Aubrey: After this announcement that he has pulled the food pyramid, all hell breaks loose. The USDA gets hundreds of protest letters from the American Cancer Society, the American Dietetic Association, the Society for Nutrition Education. They get it from the fruit and vegetable lobby who also have a lobby and now they're pissed off. And ultimately, this peaks when the American Medical Association passed a resolution demanding that the President make an executive move to rehouse nutrition education from the USDA to HHS.
Michael: Oh, my God, you know what this is?
Aubrey: What is it?
Michael: This is like a cancel culture story.
Michael: Where it's like somebody does something and then a bunch of right wingers or whatever are yelling at them on the internet and they're like, "We're going to change this thing," or, "We're not going to release this movie," or whatever. And then a bunch of left wingers start yelling at them for caving into the pressure. So, in doing so, you end up pissing everybody off.
Aubrey: They totally did. This all gets covered in the New York Times. They run a story called "Are Cattlemen Now Guarding the Henhouse?"
Michael: Oh, you can do better.
Aubrey: Another one is called "Catering to Cows or Consumers."
Michael: Ah, it's okay.
Aubrey: It's fine.
Michael: They should have been something like, "Under pressure, the new food pyramid is remooooved."
Aubrey: [laughs] Michael.
Michael: That would actually be pretty good.
Aubrey: You're getting like dad joke fired, this time.
Michael: I turned 40 nine months ago. It is nothing but dad jokes from here.
Michael: So, the media story and the firestorm here isn't about the food pyramid is wrong. It is all about, "Holy shit, this lobby seems to wield so much influence." If you can derail an 11-year project, that's gnarly. So, we're now moving into May of 1991. The Secretary gives a statement to Time Magazine saying, "Everyone says I did this because of the cattle and dairy industries. That's not true. Actually, 60% of our budget as an agency is devoted to nutritional programs. But no beneficiary of any of these programs was included in the focus groups that chose the pyramid symbol." He's like, "We got to get those people from our nutrition programs into these focus groups." He is clearly casting around for excuses and the kids one didn't work. So, now the Secretary said, "We have to do all this research." And now, the USDA is on the hook to do all this fucking research- [crosstalk]
Michael: Yeah. [laughs]
Aubrey: -Secretary just made up.
Michael: Now, they've dialed themselves into this absurd Potemkin process. [laughs]
Aubrey: We're fully in Keystone cops territory just like comic slapstick incompetence weirdness. So, they do several focus groups and they come up with muddy results. Basically, they found that a few different graphics did about the same level of job.
Michael: I feel so bad for the people that had to do this.
Aubrey: It's such garbage.
Michael: It's like fake process for a little bit of PR.
Aubrey: So, then Michael, they do their research. The research comes back with not great results. So, the USDA is like, "Do it again, do more research."
Michael: Oh, my God.
Aubrey: [laughs] So, they fully do a second round of research where they straight up put up the food pyramid up against the preferred graphic from the cattle and dairy lobbies, which is a bowl. And the bowl is divided into little segments and it's vertical strips of a bowl that goes, "This much of it should be meat, and this much of it should be dairy, and this much of it should be vegetables, and blah, blah, blah." It's the same information, but their argument is essentially like, "The pyramid seems hierarchical," and I'm like, "Yes, exactly."
Michael: Well, that's the whole point. You should eat more of some stuff than other stuff. That's the message they're trying to convey.
Aubrey: So, then they come up with basically the same results as before, which is some people like the pyramid and some people like the bowl. This is all happening through the summer and fall of 1991. And in April 1992, here is what happened. This is a quote from a book called Death by Food Pyramid.
Michael: It says, "After sopping up $855,000 in tax dollars hosting 29 focus groups in five cities testing 415 potential designs and clogging media outlets with ongoing gossip about the food guide's progress, the USDA confirmed what it had concluded the year prior. The pyramid was the most effective symbol for teaching Americans what they should be eating." It's a fucking Veep episode. This is ridiculous. Years of back and forth, all this damage control, and it sounds like they're just going with the original design.
Aubrey: Yeah, they sure are. There are some changes that have been made. One more silly change that happened around this before we get into the serious changes. Around this time, they stop calling it what they had been calling it all along, which was the Eating Right pyramid.
Aubrey: Kraft said it was copyright infringement, since they had a line of prepared meals at the time called Eating Right.
Aubrey: And then Kraft's competitors also complained and they're like, "That's like free advertising for Kraft." So, everyone was mad about that name.
Michael: Oh, yeah, of course. Well, also food pyramid is a better name though.
Michael: Fair enough.
Aubrey: So, what we're going to talk about now is a set of revisions. The source on this one is someone named Luise Light. She is the former USDA director of Nutrition Education Research and she has written a book and in it, she talks about, "Here's what happened to the food pyramid." What she does not say is whether this happened between 1991 and 1992 when the food pyramid was pulled or whether this happened earlier in the process. So, we don't know when this happened. But this is part of the road to the final food pyramid. So, Luise Light has this quote. This is a passage from a piece that she wrote.
Michael: She says, "When our version of the food guide came back to us revised, we were shocked to find that it was vastly different from the one we had developed. The Ag secretary's office altered wording to emphasize processed foods over fresh and whole foods. To downplay lean meats and low fat dairy choices, because the meat and milk lobbies believed it would hurt sales of full fat products, it also hugely increased the servings of wheat and other grains to make the wheat growers happy. The meat lobby got the final word on the color of the saturated fat cholesterol guideline, which was changed from red to purple, because meat producers were worried that using red to signify bad fat would be linked to red meat in consumers' minds." Man, this is some liberal arts dialectic theory.
Aubrey: [laughs] Somebody went to Oberlin.
Michael: This reminds me of some of the [Aubrey laughs] extremely trihard semantic analyses.
Aubrey: We haven't talked about this. I don't think, but you know that one of my major fields of study in college was semiotics and this is straight up garbage semiotics territory.
Michael: It's great shit. Love it.
Aubrey: She also walks through some other changes that she said were made. In the draft to that they turned in, it recommended five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables.
Michael: Oh, and that's down to like two or three or something in the final one.
Aubrey: Correct. It ended up being changed back to five to seven a couple years later, because they got so much pressure from the National Cancer Institute. Their first draft that they turned in said three to four daily servings of whole grains. And they actually had things made with refined grains like white flour, cereal, any of that stuff in the 'use sparingly' section at the top of the pyramid.
Michael: Oh, yeah, that was never going to fly. Oof.
Aubrey: At the time, going into designing the food pyramid, there was one main priority which reflected a cultural priority at the time, which was low fat diets. That's the big thing. It's also been mentioned in a Surgeon General's report at this point. It is also important to remind you at this point that the food pyramid is an illustration of existing recommendations. It's not where you are litigating all of this stuff for the first time. They're making a food pyramid that they started designing around the 1977 dietary guidelines. That's how far gone we are. Those guidelines were pretty straightforward. They said things like eat a variety of foods. They say maintain an ideal weight, which I don't love, but it's also very in keeping with the time. They say eat foods with starch and fiber and they say avoid too much sugar, sodium, fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. That language at some point got shifted from, "Eat less of these things," to, "Avoid too much of these things."
Michael: Of course.
Aubrey: So, with all of those adjustments, with all of flying in the face of its own committee and their original recommendations, the food pyramid is approved.
Michael: And Americans never ate unhealthy food again.
Michael: Well, theme music. Thank you, Aubrey. Great episode [crosstalk] great.
Aubrey: So, I am just pulling up a picture for you of what came next in food pyramid world.
Michael: Oh, is this the terrible The Wizard of Oz one?
Aubrey: Here we go.
Michael: Yes. Oh, my God, this is such-- [crosstalk]
Aubrey: [laughs] It's so aggressively bad.
Michael: Okay. So, it is the same basic structure as the previous one, where it's like a triangle with foods. But instead of the layers going across the triangle, they're going up and down. So, it now has foods that are all receding into the distance. It's like grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, meat, and beans. But it's not clear how much of each one of them you're supposed to be eating, because there are these fucking stripes going up and down the pyramid. But then also, you've got this fucking doofus on the left-hand side of the graphic who's going up a flight of stairs.
Michael: So, the perspective of this seems like 3D, but then on the left-hand side of it, it's like 2D, because this guy's walking up.
Aubrey: It's totally cluttered, big food wheel energy. [laughs]
Michael: Yeah, dude. What am I supposed to be eating?
Aubrey: Yeah. So, this one came out in 2005. It's called MyPyramid: Steps to a Healthier You.
Aubrey: And there were continued concerns about the industry influence, because honestly, I think if the industry could have designed a pyramid shape in 1991, this probably would have been the shape they would have designed.
Michael: The other food pyramid has problems, but at least it suggests a hierarchy. Just as a graphic design principle-
Michael: -it's less of this more of this.
Michael: Whereas this one, it doesn't suggest any hierarchy. I realized that the little bands are ever so slightly thicker for some things, but it's not immediately obvious. The whole fucking point of this is to make it immediately obvious to people.
Aubrey: Just to the naked eye, this version looks like you should be eating the same amounts of dairy, greens, and vegetables all on the same plate.
Michael: Yeah, [crosstalk]
Aubrey: It just was this look like to me just at first glance.
Michael: And meat and beans includes peanut butter and eggs, which are not meat and beans?
Aubrey: It's goofy.
Michael: I don't know.
Aubrey: So, it is worth noting that this one also adds exercise.
Michael: Oh, that's what it's trying to do.
Michael: Oh, with the stairs.
Michael: That's sucks.
Aubrey: [laughs] It really looks like nutritional guidance designed by Clippy.
Michael: Again, it's like you're trying to do everything. It's like you're throwing in here, "Floss your teeth and use sunscreen and other health behaviors." It's like, "Do one thing. Eat this and not that."
Aubrey: So, once the 2005 one comes out, our old pal at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Walter Willett-
Michael: Walter Willett?
Aubrey: -has been talking about the food pyramid this whole time and has been like, "Everyone got everything wrong."
Michael: Oh, no. Are we going to have to agree with Walter Willett on this podcast in this episode?
Aubrey: No, we're not, because Harvard went ahead and made its own food pyramid.
Michael: Oh, yeah. See, this one is also you're trying to do too much, Walter.
Aubrey: Yeah, totally.
Michael: Okay. So, this is the Healthy Eating Pyramid and it's a series of cartoon illustrations. And then again, we've got-- Oh man, I know the committee bullshit that went into this. It's again a triangle but the top of the triangle is a little bit physically separated-
Michael: -and it's like, okay, I see what you did there. Use sparingly red meat, and butter, refined grains, white bread, rice and pasta, sugary drinks and sweets, salt. That's bad sparingly. Then, we've got dairy, and then a little bit more nuts, seeds, beans and tofu, fish, poultry, and eggs.
Aubrey: The base layer of food is vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats, and oils.
Michael: And then, the next one down is other shit. Oh, my fucking God. So, the base of the pyramid is daily exercise and weight control. Walter, this is trash.
Aubrey: Off to the side, optional - alcohol in moderation (not for everyone).
Michael: Oh, my fucking God and daily vitamin-
Michael and Aubrey: For those people.
Aubrey: It's really not good.
Michael: Oh, my God.
Aubrey: It includes more detail. It feels genuinely more instructive than the vertical pyramid.
Michael: Yes, literally anything would be better than that.
Aubrey: Right. This one actually feels something you could understand what they're trying to say.
Michael: Also, you have the alcohol and the vitamins outside of the pyramid.
Michael: So, there's no graphical representation of them. They just describe in words, you should do that in moderation. But surely the whole point of the fucking graphic is to suggest visually to me what I should be doing in moderation. So, you have these elements that are literally just floating out in undifferentiated space, which like, well, at that point, why don't you just put fucking everything in undifferentiated space and just have a bunch of different foods and describe to me how much I should be eating them?"
Aubrey: It's goofy. It's so goofy.
Michael: Oh, my God, I'm having such flashbacks to the times I've tried to design logos and things with-- [laughs] Every single fucking thing to be in there, "Why would you have multivitamins on the healthy eating pyramid?" Vitamins are not eating.
Aubrey: Why is there a scale at the bottom? Why is there a tennis ball?
Michael: Oh, yeah.
Aubrey: The text surrounding this also has even more weird, intense guidance. In the fruits category, in the narrative, they talk about how you can have one small glass of juice per day, but the rest of it has to be whole fruit. They are clear that potatoes don't count as vegetables.
Aubrey: They add water requirements for how much water you're supposed to drink every day and they're essentially just trying to add in more and more detail where the previous pyramids have tried to strip that out and make it just really clean and clear. And again, much guidance provided by government agencies is trying to do that with limited language. They're trying to use words less and Harvard is like, "No, here's all the words."
Michael: [unintelligible 00:46:45].
Aubrey: So, Harvard goes so far with this food pyramid that they straight up conduct a study and release it comparing the Harvard food pyramid to the USDA food pyramid. It becomes like a whole big second wave to this story of people talking about the Harvard food pyramid. And that culminated in my favorite thing, which is in one of those Frontline interviews, they interview Walter Willett. One of the questions is just, "Some nutritionists have criticized your pyramid as 'floating on a lake of olive oil.'"
Aubrey: So, all these people coming out of low fat diet world are like, "What the fuck why is oil? Why did they move from the top to the bottom?"
Michael: We just don't have clear advice. The science is still so out on this stuff.
Michael: Yeah, you can have oils as either use sparingly or use a ton.
Aubrey: And both of those are accurate reflections of what people are taking away from the research because the research isn't fucking great just yet.
Michael: It's all over the place. Yeah.
Aubrey: From there, we get MyPlate, we get some other nutritional guidance there. Currently, they just closed nominations for developing the 2025 nutrition guidelines.
Michael: Hell yeah.
Aubrey: And we have heard less and less from the cattlemen, and the dairy industry, and so on, and so forth, because now it really seems influence from the food industry is just how things work.
Aubrey: In that 2005 pyramid, we saw the guy exercising walking up the stairs on the side of the pyramid. There has since been considerable evidence that Coca-Cola bankrolled a ton of studies designed to shift the blame for both fatness and heart disease from consuming sugar to a lack of exercise.
Michael: I'm glad the sugar companies finally got involved.
Michael: I love a good evil lobbyist versus evil lobbyist fight.
Aubrey: So, years later, Frontline does a piece about the food pyramid. The name of that piece is The Fattening. So, a whole shit ton of the media, since this happened around the food pyramid is like, "If we'd just listened, we could have avoided the obesity epidemic."
Michael: Oh, nice. Oh, my God. [laughs]
Aubrey: There wouldn't be so many fat people if we could just have gotten this thing right. And I will just say as a fat person, that just sucks. It sucks that the reason that people care about this is that there are fewer people who look like me in the world. It sucks that fat people are the scapegoat, the boogeyman, and the political football all at the same time. And I also don't believe in laying the blame anywhere for the "obesity epidemic," because I don't think fat people are a fucking epidemic. I think we're a gift. You're welcome. We're here. Isn't it great? Don't you want to treat fat people like someone you want to know instead of some looming specter of doom, which is how we're regarded in so much of this? I think part of what made this really hard was that those quotes weren't coming from food industry lobbyists. They were coming from the press, and the USDA, and Congress. And that is a horrific thing to say to the people you are trying to give nutritional guidance to.
And then, the last thing I will say about the 1991, 1992 food pyramid is-- add our teeny tiny coda about it is that, so much of the freak out here was about what to do with fats and sugars and that has since been pretty complicated by the research and pretty debunked. Low fat diets are not actually the guiding star of nutrition guidance these days. That's been complicated pretty considerably. The blame is now being pinned on the sugar industry, which was working behind the scenes instead of in front of them. It's just weird that there was this huge blowup. The way that it gets talked about now and I think Marion Nestle says this in her book, I don't fully agree, but I get where she's coming from and she's like, "This is a rare story where science prevailed over industry, because the food pyramid got released." And what I would say is-
Aubrey: -"Is that a yay?"
Michael: The food pyramid was wrong. [laughs]
Aubrey: I'm glad that super jerky rich lobbyists working for industries with too much influence got their asses handed to them. I like that part of it. But am I thrilled that we got that food pyramid? Not really.
Michael: It would have been a much better use of money if they had just remoooooved the entire process.
Aubrey: Michael, Michael--
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