A Fatally Flawed Food Guide
by Luise Light, Ed.D
As a new Food Guide to replace the Food Pyramid is being considered, it appears our nutritional needs are being sold to the highest bidder ... again! Nutritionist Luise Light, a former USDA insider and an architect of the original version of the Food Pyramid — that never saw the light of day — describes the fatal flaws of a government bowing to industry interests.
A former vice president of the National Pork Producers’ Council is looking for new ways to educate us on how to eat right. As the director of nutrition and health promotion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Eric Hentges, PhD, is considering catchy jingles and website information to replace the Food Pyramid guide next year. The USDA says that too many consumers are confused by the government’s Food Pyramid and can’t figure out how to implement the recommendations in the guide, citing the fact that two out of three Americans are too fat.
But perhaps many Americans did follow the Food Pyramid and that’s why they ended up overweight! Let me explain.
Back in the early ‘80s, I was the leader of a group of top-level nutritionists with the USDA who developed the eating guide that became known as the Food Guide Pyramid.
Carefully reviewing the research on nutrient recommendations, disease prevention, documented dietary shortfalls and major health problems of the population, we submitted the final version of our new Food Guide to the Secretary of Agriculture.
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. As I later discovered, the wholesale changes made to the guide by the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture were calculated to win the acceptance of the food industry. For instance, 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’d 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 worried that using red to signify “bad” fat would be linked to red meat in consumers’ minds.
Where we, the USDA nutritionists, called for a base of 5-9 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables a day, it was replaced with a paltry 2-3 servings (changed to 5-7 servings a couple of years later because an anti-cancer campaign by another government agency, the National Cancer Institute, forced the USDA to adopt the higher standard). Our recommendation of 3-4 daily servings of whole-grain breads and cereals was changed to a whopping 6-11 servings forming the base of the Food Pyramid as a concession to the processed wheat and corn industries. Moreover, my nutritionist group had placed baked goods made with white flour — including crackers, sweets and other low-nutrient foods laden with sugars and fats — at the peak of the pyramid, recommending that they be eaten sparingly. To our alarm, in the “revised” Food Guide, they were now made part of the Pyramid’s base. And, in yet one more assault on dietary logic, changes were made to the wording of the dietary guidelines from “eat less” to “avoid too much,” giving a nod to the processed-food industry interests bynot limiting highly profitable “fun foods” (junk foods by any other name) that might affect the bottom line of food companies.
But even this neutralized wording of the revised Guidelines created a firestorm of angry responses from the food industry and their Congressional allies who believed that the “farmers’ department” (USDA) shouldnot be telling the public to eat less of anything, including saturated fat and cholesterol, meat, eggs and sugar.
I vehemently protested that the changes, if followed, could lead to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes — and couldn’t be justified on either health or nutritional grounds. To my amazement, I was a lone voice on this issue, as my colleagues appeared to accept the “policy level” decision. Over my objections, the Food Guide Pyramid was finalized, although it only saw the light of day 12 years later, in 1992. Yet it appears my warning has come to pass.
Déjà vu All Over Again
Here we are again, poised to be served up another helping of Dietary Guidelines in 2005 and a possible replacement for the failed Food Pyramid. This time, can we expect something less compromised and more reflective of what Americans need to achieve good health?
I think not. Ultimately, the food industry dictates the government’s food advice, shaping the nutrition agenda delivered to the public. In fact, to the food industry, the purpose of food guides is to persuade consumers thatall foods (especially those that they’re selling) fit into a healthful diet.
The government readily complies. The newly recommended Dietary Guidelines, delivered to the government last September by its handpicked advisory committee will almost assuredly be categorically endorsed. The Guidelines include meaningless — even deceptive — recommendations like: “Choose carbohydrates wisely for good health” (is a breakfast cereal that’s 38 percent sugar a “wise” choice?) and “Choose fats wisely for good health” (are fast food French fries cooked in artery-clogging, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, a powerful promoter of heart disease, a “wise” choice?). Further, in an apparent attempt to make no foods off-limits, the Guidelines give the nod to “discretionary calories” from added sugars and fats, once basic nutritional needs have been met.
These statements, which will form the basis of all national food and nutrition policy (including all of the U.S. school meal programs), protect every interest group in the food industry by basically setting no limits on any type or amount of fat and carbohydrate consumed. And all of this with the directive to “control calorie intake to manage body weight.” Say what?
How and why does the government allow this to happen? As I learned from my days as a USDA nutritionist, nutrition for the government is primarily a marketing tool to fuel growth in consumer food expenditures and demand for major food commodities: meat, dairy, eggs, wheat. It’s an economics lesson that has very little to do with our health and nutrition and everything to do with making sure that food expenditures continue to rise for all interests involved in the food industry.
Moreover, the USDA has had a long and cozy relationship with the food industry, whose executives often end up in USDA leadership positions (for instance, Mr. Hentges, formerly of the National Pork Producers’ Council and mentioned earlier). In fact, consumer groups requested (unsuccessfully) last year that seven of the 13 panel members who were writing the Food Guidelines, be removed because of their close ties to the food industry. Additionally, hundreds of food industry lobbyists keep the USDA in line — their line. Agriculture is among the top 10 industries that spend most on lobbying efforts.
It’s evident that the government can’t be relied on to provide objective, health-promoting food and nutrition advice. In the 25 years since the initial Food Guide was developed, we face an unprecedented nutrition crisis. A majority of Americans have poor-quality diets and the rates of diet-related chronic diseases, from cancer, diabetes and heart disease to digestive diseases and arthritis, are soaring. The latest research blames commercial food ingredients, imbalanced diets, excessive calories and too few nutrient and antioxidantrich vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
Given our national nutrition crisis, it’s vital that the government deliver state of the art nutrition advice that is unfettered by special interests. Being intimately aware of the government’s internal workings, I suggest the responsibility be moved totally to the Department of Health and Human Services where nutritionists don’t have ties to the food industry and officials are less likely to knuckle under to pressures from food lobbies. The USDA’s built-in conflicts of interest must be openly acknowledged so that we can make the shift. Nutrition is too important to leave to anyone who’s interest is convincing us to “just eat more.”
Luise Light, Ed.D, was hired by the USDA to develop a new food guide to replace the “Basic Four” in the 1980s. See accompanyinginterview with Dr. Light. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.