How lobbyists changed the food pyramid

“At best, the USDA Pyramid offers indecisive, scientifically unfounded advice on an absolutely vital topic--what to eat"
tiered pyramid

Harvard University’s chairman of nutrition weighed in on the food pyramid for Mic.com: “At best, the USDA Pyramid offers indecisive, scientifically unfounded advice on an absolutely vital topic–what to eat,” he wrote. “At worst, the misinformation it offers contributes to overweight, poor health, and unnecessary early deaths.”


If you’ve recently consulted one of the healthy eating and nutrition guideline food pyramids most of us grew up learning about in elementary school, you might find some surprises. Here’s a refresher (circa 2000).

Why in the world would bread and cereal be listed in the group that we should be eating the most servings of? And do nutritionists really approve of an 8-ounce hamburger or steak every day?

While widely circulated and propped up as a nutrition guideline, this tool was produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and as such focuses more on what’s good for the agriculture industry rather than for public health.

How lobbyists shape popular breakfast choices

Many of us have scoffed at commercials for sugar-packed, artificial cereal brands that cheerily parrot the phrase, “part of a complete breakfast!”. Yet we may not be familiar with how these companies are legally able to present this questionable claim.

Cereal companies lobbied hard for the expansion of whole grain recommendation from 3 to 11 servings per day since the original recommendation was deemed unfavorable to business.

Even dairy was not originally going to be included on the food pyramid until lobbyists entered the picture.

In the case of dairy, various industry groups and associations, such as the Dairy Farmers of America and the National Dairy Council, have actively lobbied government agencies responsible for formulating dietary guidelines. These organizations have significant financial resources and influential connections that they leverage to promote their interests.

The dairy industry’s lobbying efforts involve engaging with policymakers, providing them with research studies, and presenting their arguments in support of including dairy as a separate food group on the food pyramid. They highlight the nutritional benefits of dairy products, such as their calcium content and their role in promoting bone health.

The lobbying pressure often includes financial contributions to political campaigns, which can create a favorable environment for industry-friendly policies. By making campaign donations, the dairy industry can gain access to policymakers and decision-makers, increasing their influence in shaping dietary guidelines.

While the specific details of lobbying efforts are not always transparent, the influence of dairy industry lobbying can be seen in the final recommendations of the food pyramid guidelines. The inclusion of dairy as a separate category implies that it is an essential component of a healthy diet, despite the fact that other sources of calcium and nutrients exist.

It is important to note that lobbying is a common practice across various industries, and the dairy industry is not unique in employing these strategies. However, the effectiveness of lobbying efforts can be attributed to the significant resources and political connections of industry groups, which enable them to shape public policy in their favor.

A bit of good news: the food pyramid was officially retired in American public schools in 2011 and has now been replaced with a tool called “MyPlate”, essentially a standard dinner plate divided into about 30% grains, 40% vegetables, 10% fruits and 20% protein, with a serving of dairy on the side.


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