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Of Triangles, Circles and Other Children’s Shapes: The Food Pyramid Changes Again

By Harvey Hartman

Those who have followed our work at Hartman Group know that we have forever been strident critics of the USDA’s assorted versions of the Food Pyramid, as well as other attempts at educating the American public in the area of nutrition and healthy eating.

Far from fans of public criticism, we feel a responsibility to represent the voice of the consumer–especially on matters as important as our health and well-being.

We were among the first to warn that the last refresh of the food pyramid in 2005 would prove unsuccessful and likely have no effect on obesity rates. We knew this because the pyramid was particularly confusing and people do not eat according to scientific principles. But more foundationally, because our research always shows that most people are not interested in this source of information, there is little reason to expect any correlated behavioral change.

Consumers will look at these pyramids, they will read them, and they may actually investigate them. But none of these activities will affect their future eating behavior.

While unveiling the great Food Pyramid of 2005, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns actually foreshadowed the above points, observing that the 1993 pyramid had “...become quite familiar, but few Americans follow the recommendations.”

Not surprisingly, the 2005 pyramid–described by Science 2.0 blog as a “...bizarre H. R. Pufnstuf-inspired bit of psychedelia”–failed miserably.

So coming this week is yet one more refresh. Only this time the pyramid will be swapped for a plate. USDA Food Guidelines

Less triangle, more circle. A circle more than a few have uncharitably characterized as pie.

Once again, the powers-that-be refused to consider the historical evidence (i.e. that these things never work) and pursue more innovative approaches. Rather than thrusting a plate upon us, why not remove all vending machines from schools? It’s always struck me as bizarre that we would let our children eat from machines, but I digress.

From The New York Times:

  • The circular plate, which will be unveiled Thursday, is meant to give consumers a fast, easily grasped reminder of the basics of a healthy diet. It consists of four colored sections, for fruits, vegetables, grains and protein, according to several people who have been briefed on the change. Beside the plate is a smaller circle for dairy, suggesting a glass of low-fat milk or perhaps a yogurt cup.

According to Robert C. Post, PhD, deputy director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion:

  • What we learned is it is not just giving information, it is a matter of making people understand there are options and practical ways to apply this to their lifestyle…There will be a 'how-to' that will resonate with individuals. That is the behavioral part that is needed. We need to transcend information–'here's what the science says'–and give people the tools and the opportunities to take action.

Post’s rationalizations may sound impressive, but the problem is that every pyramid has always and forever been about giving people information and tools to take action. This is how they justify to the public and press why we keep getting new pyramids.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns did the same thing in 2005 when he referred to the 2005 Pyramid as “a system of information to help consumers understand how to put nutrition recommendations into action.”

But I am not here to predict the failure of yet one more USDA refresh of the food pyramid concept. My sense is that the rest of you will likely come to the same conclusion simply by looking at the historical evidence.

What concerns me about the new concept is that in their (understandable) efforts to move away from complexity in the direction of simplicity, they have characterized the American consumer as a pre-adolescent child incapable of understanding the most basic of suggestions.

Part of the “tools” Post and team plan to offer consumers include the following six “how-to” messages on healthy eating.

  1. Enjoy your food, but eat less.
  2. Avoid oversized portions.
  3. Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  4. Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.
  5. Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals — and choose the foods with lower numbers.
  6. Drink water instead of sugary drink.

It is incomprehensible to me that leaders of the USDA would expect anyone to take them seriously with this kind of messaging. Implying that consumers are unable to figure out how to reduce their sodium intake, they tell them to choose the foods with the lower numbers?

Good job, son! 200 is indeed less than 400!

And do they really believe that there are consumers who need to be told to “eat less food,” “eat smaller portions” and “avoid sugary drinks,” should they desire to improve their health?

It should come as little surprise that dozens of websites and publications have already had a blast playing with this material. The popular website Consumerist featured the following headline:

Shocking New USDA Recommendations: "Just Eat Less"!

And according to Daniel J. DeNoon who interviewed Robert Post for Wed MD, there are already plans in place to help consumers activate on the messages in this “toolkit”:

  • Doing all of this at once may be too much to swallow. So the USDA plan is to stress one idea at a time.

    First up will be the "make half of your plate fruits and vegetables" advice. It will be supported by a wide array of guidance on exactly how to do this. For example, one might add fruit to a leafy green salad. Or replace a sugary dessert with a bowl of fruit.

Hey you there, put a tomato on your salad!

What worries me most about this campaign is that it doesn’t just make a mockery of the federal government at a time when public confidence in our governmental institutions is at near record lows. (And just to be clear, while we suspect that the new “Dinner Plate” will release a thunderstorm of criticism from the anti-government right, we have no interest in those matters. As always, we are advocates only for the consumer.) The real frustration is that all of our precious resources spent talking to the American public as if they were toddlers and telling them things they already knew many years ago could be used much more effectively.

To be certain, there remain vast numbers of American consumers who are concerned with their health and weight on an everyday basis. And many devote significant effort toward those concerns, often looking to credible sources for assistance and empathy.

But for most consumers the USDA is not a credible source, and any chance the USDA might have ever had will be forever shattered by this proposed course of action.

So the next obvious question is where do consumers look for such information?

We have interviewed a large number of consumers over the past several years who have begun spending more time “shopping outside the aisles” and less time “shopping inside the aisles” because of things they learned while watching Dr. Oz on television. Yes, many find Dr. Oz’s appearance more than a bit unsettling, but they listen to what he says–in large part because of Oprah Winfrey’s credibility.

The distinction is that rather than issuing a set of childlike admonishments from above, sources like friends, loved ones, Dr. Oz and Oprah relate to how we live on a daily basis. These ideas, suggestions and people are alive, they are real, they are experienced in our daily lives.

A plate? Not so much.

As always, our duty is to represent the voice of the consumer in these issues and discussions. So I would implore all involved to give the pyramids back to Giza, put the plates back in the cabinet and begin thinking about more creative and innovative strategies on matters of health, nutrition and well-being.


Consumer Package Goods Culture


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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