Alongside crunches and the 50 yard dash, the food pyramid was a major part of my elementary school gym class. Today, the food pyramid seems like a quaint and antiquated phenomenon—something that may have peaked in the early 90s, just like after school specials. While the food pyramid was replaced with the food plate in 2011, the principles remained the same: eat your fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy, and grains.
In May, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) released their updated set of recommendations, which is the primary body of research used to create the food pyramid. A group of fifteen academics releasing a 571-page report on what you should be eating isn’t particularly sexy news: for example, this year’s report included the riveting recommendation to increase the font size on nutrition labels. But if you take a closer look, the humble food plate represents billions of dollars in potential revenue for the various food industries- and behind the scenes, the battle for a spot means that good nutrition and health guidelines are often casualties of the war. The dietary guidelines are not neutral reflections of research data - in fact, our recommendations are so influenced by food lobbies we could argue the food pyramid is a part of the public un-consciousness around nutrition.
The report feels far removed from the average person’s worries. Consumers are advised to be wary of everything from high fructose corn syrup to gluten, but most people aren’t paying attention: organic food consumption still only represents about 4% of the overall market and despite Chipotle’s high profile farewell to genetically modified foods, GMO soy and corn still represent 93% and 88% of their respective industries.
The DGAC report, sadly, won’t provide much more clarity. It isn’t written for consumers and spends a lot of time focusing on the supply system and improvements - the report contains a short section recommending that consumers pay more attention to the carbon emissions impact of their food. While this may seem strange to the average consumer, the committee's recommendation makes a lot of sense given that changes in the global climate has a direct impact on the sustainability of our food ecosystems. The trouble is conclusion the data presents: plant-based diets tend to have a lower carbon footprint than dairy, meat, and other animal products.
Representing over $154 billion and $84 billion in annual sales respectively, the meat and dairy lobbies are are fighting the recommendations tooth and nail—and are advocating for the disinclusion of climate change-informed portions of the guidelines. In a 2014 statement in response to the preliminary committee findings, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) called the recommendation “arbitrary and capricious” and said it “suggests that the DGAC fails to recognize the nutritional value lean meat offers and is ignoring the scientific evidence supporting its inclusion in the American diet.” (Another press release from NAMI trumpets the headline “New Research Shows That Five Out of Six People Who Adopt No-Meat Diet Surrender to Good Taste and Nutrition, Abandon Vegetarianism.”)
This isn’t the first time a large lobbying group advocated to change the opinion of regulators. In 2012, the USDA tried to advocate for Meatless Mondays as an effort to reduce environmental impact—by steering consumers towards less water- and carbon-intensive plant foods—but the meat lobby quickly shut down those efforts. Similarly, as food writer Marion Nestle points out, several big corporate food lobbies (including soda and fast food) have had a hand in shifting dietary guidelines rhetoric around maintaining good health to focus on physical activity rather than nutrition itself.
But beyond individual habits, the dietary guidelines lay the foundations for purchases by huge, institutional customers: federal prisons, hospitals, schools, and the military. In other words, the dietary guidelines dictate what a lot of people who don’t have a lot of choices eat on a day-to-day basis. The food pyramid survives to this day because the government needs it as a means of standardization, and as a building block for the national understanding of nutrition. The National School Lunch Program alone represents $10 billion in contracts, which means companies have a huge financial incentive to keep their wares on the food pyramid.
In other words, the science and story can and will be skewed in order to maximize profits. The battles over the spots on the food pyramid aren’t about making good food available to everyday consumers - it’s about maintaining industry dominance without increasing costs to improve sustainability.
Right now, companies are incentivized to carve out (or acquire) niche products to appeal to the demographic that can most afford and desire novelty options. General Mills owns Cascadian Farms, for example, a popular organic cereal brand. Kellogg’s owns Kashi cereal (whose status with respect to GMOs is now questionable). But on the whole Kellogg’s profits come from familiar products like Frosted Flakes and Corn Pops, which we are always reminded are “part of a complete breakfast.”
Both materially and psychologically, other ways of approaching and eating food—whether based in traditional knowledge, current health food trends, or something Gwyneth Paltrow said one time on her blog—appear as fragments against this larger landscape of government-corporate control. Even the‘latest science’ the DGAC uses to produce its guidelines often has as much to do with what the industries in question are funding or rather than independent exploration of the food we eat.
The entire ‘milk builds strong bones’ campaign, for example, was pulled from one scientist’s research, and several researchers since have refuted the claim. Today, the dairy industry has an annual marketing budget of over $160 million, $4-5 million of which is channeled towards creating health messaging around milk.
Food corporations need to invest in nutrition science because the data studies create can determine how big their contracts are. And because of the way large-scale production works, institutional contracts tie up the resources of our food system in order to fulfill those contracts. It’s a cycle—one that harms workers, consumers, and the humans and nonhumans who deal with the environmental consequences.
It is important to remember that transforming our food system isn’t just about telling individual people what they should and shouldn’t eat. It isn’t about introducing a few new organic brands, or asking consumers to ‘vote with their dollars’. The biggest shift will be recognizing the boredom and bureaucracy that make up the system’s biggest moving parts, and watching who’s benefiting from the billions of dollars of spending.
Want to know who’s profiting from all this skewed science and marketing?
Just look at the food plate.
Janani Balasubramanian is a nerdy artivist who likes thinking about apocalypse, microflora, empire, desire, and the Future. They're currently working on a novel, H, and a comic collection, SHY.