The social history of the food pyramid

With the unveiling later this week of a replacement to the food pyramid (it will be a “plate-shaped symbol, sliced into wedges for the basic food groups and half-filled with fruits and vegetables”), the New York Times provides a quick look at the background of the food pyramid:

The food pyramid has a long and tangled history. Its original version showed a hierarchy of foods, with those that made up the largest portions of a recommended diet, like grains, fruit and vegetables, closest to the wide base. Foods that were to be eaten in smaller quantities, like dairy and meat, were closer to the pyramid’s tapering top.

But the pyramid’s original release was held back over complaints from the meat and dairy industry that their products were being stigmatized. It was released with minor changes in 1992.

A revised pyramid was released in 2005. Called MyPyramid, it turned the old hierarchy on its side, with vertical brightly colored strips standing in for the different food groups. It also showed a stick figure running up the side to emphasize the need for exercise.

But the new pyramid was widely viewed as hard to understand. The Obama administration began talking about getting rid of it as early as last summer. At that time, a group of public health experts, nutritionists, food industry representatives and design professionals were invited to a meeting in Washington where they were asked to discuss possible alternative symbols. One option was a plate.

Two things stand out to me:

1. This is partly about changing nutritional standards but also is about politics and lobbying. Food groups are backed by businesses and industries that have a stake in this. Did they play any part in this new logo?

2. This is a graphical design issue. The old food pyramid suggests that certain foods should be the basis/foundation for eating. The most recent pyramid is a bit strange as the pyramid is broken into slivers so the peaking aspect of a pyramid seems to have been discarded. The new logo sounds like it will be a more proportional based object where people can quickly see what percentage of their diet should be devoted to different foods. Since this is a logo that is likely to be slapped on many educational materials and food packages, it would be helpful if it is easy to understand.

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