Many of us greeted the unveiling of the government’s new food pyramid with
a mixture of puzzlement and confusion. Indeed, the dizzying layers of rainbow-colored
lines helped distract from the fact that the food industry’s fingerprints
are all over the new dietary guidelines—in ways that hurt rather than help
What most people don’t realize is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s
(USDA’s) original vision for the pyramid included visual indicators to
show people how often they should eat certain foods. Pastries and donuts, for
example, would be marked “occasional.” But these guidelines are
now nowhere to be found in the new “MyPyramid,” thanks to giant
food corporations and their lobbyists.
Perhaps the most glaring evidence of the industry’s influence is the
government’s refusal to recommend which foods not to eat, while putting
a strong emphasis on individual responsibility. The only mention of unhealthy
foods in new dietary guidelines is a gentle reminder to “know the limits
on fats, sugars and salts.” Also missing are recommendations limiting
the amount of food people eat. Considering that 28 percent of American men and
34 percent of women are obese, this omission is especially troubling.
But it doesn’t stop there. The government didn’t budget for a PR
campaign to get the word out about its new nutritional guidelines. So guess
who’s coming to the rescue? The food industry. McDonald’s, General
Mills, Philip Morris/Altria’s Kraft Foods, and other food titans barely
waited for the ink to dry on the new guidelines before volunteering their own
PR machines to “raise awareness.” The Grocery Manufacturers of America—with
members like Cargill and Philip Morris/Altria—also jumped in, offering
to distribute posters and guides to reach 4 million kids.
The majority of food industry advertising spending goes toward aggressive promotion
of sodas, candy, junk food snacks, alcoholic beverages and high-sugar desserts.
In contrast, Big Food spends an insignificant amount marketing the main pillars
of the food pyramid: fruits, vegetables, beans and grains.
We would feel uneasy giving Big Tobacco the reins to a government-sponsored
tobacco control campaign. We should feel equally uneasy about the food industry’s
heavy-handed involvement in the government’s official dietary guidelines.
America’s obesity epidemic is now the nation’s second leading cause
of preventable deaths. U.S. government guidelines on food and nutrition should
provide specific recommendations to limit foods high in sugar and salt, which
can contribute to obesity and other serious health problems, including diabetes,
high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Our organization is currently supporting national and international regulations
that would hold food manufacturers accountable for their contributions to the
global obesity epidemic. We are working toward the implementation of the World
Health Organization’s Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and
Health, specifically measures to curtail the promotion of junk food and inform
consumers about the dangers of foods high in sugar, salt and fat.
The USDA food pyramid is a trusted American icon that many of us first encounter
in grade school. It then follows us throughout adulthood as we become parents
ourselves, responsible for planning meals for our families. Something so essential
to our well-being shouldn’t fall into the hands of the food industry --
or any other private industry whose bottom line could conflict with what’s
best for our health. That’s what makes the food industry’s incredible
influence over the government’s dietary guidelines so hard to stomach.
Kathryn Mulvey is the executive director of Corporate Accountability International
(CAI), formerly Infact. CAI is a membership organization that protects people
by waging campaigns challenging irresponsible and dangerous corporate actions
around the world. www.stopcorporateabuse.org.