The Localvore: When it come to food, are we smarter?

By Ruth Rhodes April 24, 2010 08:26 am

Remember the old joke about the four food groups? Fast, frozen, instant and chocolate? If you’re old enough to remember Butoni Toaster Pizzas and florescent hair clips, you’re old enough to have learned about the original four food groups in school: dairy, meat, fruits and vegetables, and grains.  Introduced by the USDA in 1956, the four food groups remained a mainstay of nutrition education for nearly 40 years.

I vividly remember my health teacher, Mrs. Groves, teaching us about the food groups. This was back when we still had health teachers.  Mrs. Groves had us planning meals that included all the groups. I recall her praising one group’s work in particular. Its members had made a complete meal out of a single piece of pizza. “It’s got all the groups,” Mrs. Groves explained excitedly, “as long as it’s pepperoni pizza!”

You may say that we’ve come a long way in our understanding of what to eat, but I’m not so sure. I recently asked my students to write an essay about the link between poverty and obesity. They made thoughtful observations about reasons for the trend and resources available to those in need. Unfortunately, when asked to describe inexpensive, balanced meals that poor people could afford to eat, I discovered that some of their ideas about what constituted “healthy” foods were as out-of-date as Mrs. Groves’.

It’s no wonder, considering the mixed messages we’ve gotten all our lives. Ideas about what’s healthy seem to change with the advent of each new celebrity diet.

Why hasn’t the USDA hasn’t helped? Well, the short answer is that it’s had a different job to do. The original architect of the four food groups, the voice behind U.S. Dietary Guidelines that govern schools, prisons, and the military, is a government organization dedicated to promoting American agriculture. It was supposed to sell food, not stop us from buying it. Even today, the wordsmiths at the USDA pepper their guidelines with the language of “eat more” (fish, nut oils, green vegetables, whole grains) rather than “eat less.”

Two powerful players are behind the wordplay: the meat and dairy Industries. These strong agricultural lobbies have long had a choke hold on the USDA. This explains why they each got their own food groups and prime real estate on our dinner plates. And, according to the documentary “Killer At Large: Why Obesity is America’s Greatest Threat,” the relationship between the USDA and big food lobbyists is so tight that leaders from these powerful food lobbies often find themselves running the USDA.

To its credit, in 1992, the USDA replaced the four food groups with the Healthy Food Pyramid. Its 2005 iteration, MyPyramid.gov, is notably better in terms of its advice, but worse in terms of its clarity. As a graphic message, it’s been criticized as a wordless, incomprehensible jumble. The conspiracy theorists believe the confusion is intentional.

Perhaps a better place to find answers about what to eat is the Web site of Harvard’s School of Public Health. These nutrition experts gave up trying to work with the USDA years ago and created their own pyramid, free from the influence of lobbyists. You can find it on www.nutritionsource.org.  The graphics are fairly simple to understand and the message familiar: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” That’s a long way from Mrs. Groves’ exclamation, “As long as it’s pepperoni pizza!” but we live and learn.