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.

“The Dieter’s Paradox”: Not seeing calories, even when they are right in front of us

A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology finds that healthy food, like fruits and vegetables, has a “halo effect” so powerful that consumers don’t even think they have calories:

[A]nother weight-loss conundrum: if you show people a plate of unhealthy food – say, a burger and fries – and then add some steamed broccoli to the very same plate, most people will say the second plate has fewer calories, even though it demonstrably has more calories on it. The author of the new paper, Alexander Chernev of Northwestern University, calls this “The Dieter’s Paradox.”

This study adds to a body of research that suggests we have difficulty estimating how much food and calories are really in front of us. These findings also remind me of Michael Pollan’s argument that focusing on nutrition, so in this case, seeing the vegetables or healthier food and thinking of how “nutritious” it is, is the wrong way to go about eating.

Uno’s with America’s “worst pizza” – but it tastes good!

Yahoo likes to run stories about the “worst foods” in different categories and an updated list examines pizza. The #1 worst pizza in America: Uno Chicago Grill Chicago Classic Deep Dish Pizza (Individual). Here is the nutritional information and the description of the pizza:

2,310 calories
162 g fat (54 g saturated fat)
4,920 mg sodium

Wait, wait, wait. This is a one-person pizza? Yup. All 2,310 calories are destined for one soon-to-be expanding belly. This pie has been a perennial pick for us over the past three years, and the reason is simple: No other personal pizza in the country even begins to approach these numbers. It breaks every single caloric recommendation on the books, and it does it under the guise of a must-have “classic” dish. With the country being plagued by obesity, Uno should have the decency to banish—or significantly improve—this dish.

I want to briefly discuss two arguments made in this description:

1. The author suggests Uno’s is being malicious by slapping the “classic” label on this pizza. The suggestion is that being labeled “classic” means people think it is a “must-have” and are essentially being duped into selecting this pizza.

2. Because obesity is a big problem, Uno’s “should have the decency” (perhaps “responsibility”?) to fix this dish.

Some thoughts on these two arguments:

1. The Uno’s pizza is a “classic.” Deep dish pizza is perhaps the best-known food of Chicago. Naming this food a “classic” is not a trick; it is part of the city’s culinary heritage. Should an unhealthy food item not be allowed to be called “classic”?

2. Perhaps the pizza could be made healthier – but I don’t think Uno’s would suggest it should be eaten at every meal. If you eat Uno’s pizza, it’s hard to eat much of it as it is quite filling. Compared to the other six worst pizzas on the list, Uno’s likely reaches the smallest market.

(Personal disclosure: perhaps I am overstating the arguments against and for the pizza. I like deep-dish Chicago pizza. I don’t eat it all that often but I have had Uno’s (or Due’s) many times and I enjoy the experience. However, in recent years, my deep-dish alliances have moved over to Giordano’s because their pizza tastes less heavy and at least appeared to me to have less grease than Uno’s version.)

Free apps from the US government

Parade provides a list of smartphone applications that are free for download from the United States government. From the Parade list and the online list at, two of the useful and interesting options: Enter any food, medicine, or product to learn whether it has been the subject of a safety recall. [I’ve wondered how consumers are supposed to know whether an item is recalled or not. An app like this could be very useful.]

My Food-a-Pedia Type in any food to see how many calories it has and which food-pyramid requirements it fulfills. [Sounds like good basic nutrition information.]

I can’t imagine this app will get too much use:

Alternative Fuel Locator Looking for a tankful of bio-diesel? This app will show you the way to the nearest station. [Perhaps not enough bio-diesel users out there.]

And I’m not sure what users will think of these two:

FBI’s Most Wanted Browse a list of the country’s most dangerous fugitives and submit a tip from your phone if you spot one of the criminals. [Could be a way to kill time – or confirm one’s suspicions about the shifty guy on the subway.]

NASA App [Could be really cool – or a bunch of bureaucratic stuff.]

Not owning a smartphone, I haven’t spent any time browsing the application stores to see what is available. But if the government has jumped into the game, it sounds like we are well on our way to having many more apps…