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2005 MyPyramid: What the USDA Won't Tell You

by Bonnie Minsky, M.A., M.P.H., L.D.N., C.N.S.         Testimonials

With all the bravado and excitement concocted since the release of MyPyramid 2005, there is a seedy underbelly aching to be exploited. Specifically, I am talking about a $500 billion dollar food industry influencing a wing of government that has no business overseeing our nation’s nutrition policy, because their loyalties are not to the American public.

We should have known it was doomed from the start. From the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee handpicked by special interests to MyPyramid.gov incapacitated for the first 24 hours it was online, we should have known.

Other than a few positive changes (consuming more fruits and vegetables and promoting more exercise), MyPyramid reek’s badly.

This is what we've been waiting thirteen years for? This is what a marketing firm hired by the USDA for $2.4 million of our tax dollars came up with?

Last food pyramid was a failure
Actually, this is one thing the USDA did tell you. Dr. Eric Hentges, Director of the Center for Nutrition and Food Policy, said as much. As far back as 2001, The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and The National Institutes of Health (NIH) admitted at a conference for health professionals that the Food Guide Pyramid was a total failure. 80% of Americans recognized the symbol, but have become sicker and heavier than at any other time in recorded history since it was updated in 1992.

My Pyramid is not based upon sound science
In 2004, the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons pontificated that, “the 2005 changes in the Dietary Guidelines and Food Guide Pyramid will add complexity but will not correct the errors.”

Harvard School of Public Health and the top genetic researchers in America agree that our genes and dietary needs have changed very little (about 0.005 percent) since the beginning of the agricultural revolution over 10,000 years ago. At that time, a human’s system, taste buds, and food supply, were in harmony. Our ancestor’s diet consisted mostly of game meats, fish, shellfish, small mammals, tubers and sprouted vegetables, fruits, and nuts. They consumed very little grain except wild emmer wheat and barley when they couldn’t get enough other foods. They consumed no dairy products. They consumed no concentrated or refined sugars. No mention of genetic variation as it relates to dietary needs was ever considered in the pyramid or in the dietary guidelines.

As anticipated, grain and milk make up the largest sections of MyPyramid. 80% of the pyramid is carbohydrates and milk products. Wheat (the grain most prominent on MyPyramid.gov) is the number two allergen in the United States. In excess, whole wheat blocks the absorption of essential minerals. There is a strong correlation between gluten intolerance (the grain that holds grains together) and diabetes, osteoporosis, thyroid malfunction, and autoimmune disease. The Glycemic load (how fast carbohydrates are metabolized as sugar into the bloodstream) shows that whole grains are not much better than refined carbohydrates and are much worse than fruit and vegetable carbohydrates.

MyPyramid makes no mention of added sugars, and the 2005 Dietary Guidelines simply say’s, “choose your carbohydrates wisely.” A study done by Dr. Shanthy Bowman, a nutritionist at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, showed that people who got more than 18% of their calories from added sugars had “the least adequately nutritious diets,” than two other groups with 10-18% or less than 10%. Considering millions of Americans are in the more than 18% group, and the study came from one of its own, would one not expect there to be a stronger phrase than “choose carbohydrates wisely?” We’ve actually regressed with regard to the sugar issue. In 1980, it was “avoid too much sugar.” In 2000, it was “choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugar.” In 2005, it is “choose your carbohydrates wisely.”

Now that the amount of dairy servings has been increased to three daily from 2-3 in the last food pyramid, let’s look at the sound science. Two-thirds of the world is lactose intolerant (the sugar in milk and dairy products). Many others are allergic to casein (milk protein). Milk is the number one allergen in the United States. A 2005 Pediatrics review study found that milk is not essential for healthy bone growth in young children if they get calcium from other sources and exercise adequately. Countries, such as Finland, consuming the most cows’ milk have a high rate of the “calcification” form of heart disease and the most osteoporosis in the hip areas. Countries consuming virtually no cow’s milk products, such as Japan, have lower levels of osteoporosis than the US and the lowest rates of heart disease and cancer in the world.

Public relations firm Porter Novelli created the MyPyramid symbol. Of course you would want to hire them again when 80% of the American public recognized the last symbol. But the problem is, why were they involved in the science, as shown by their inclusion as a member of the March 2004 Naturally Nutrient Rich Symposium (see below)?

USDA hired a PR/Marketing firm
USDA paid marketing/pr firm Porter Novelli, as it did back in 1992, to create the new pyramid symbol for $2.4 million and has received $59 million in federal grants since 1997. The problem is that Porter Novelli also represents food conglomerates such as Campbell Soup Company, The Dole Food Co., Proctor & Gamble, and McDonald’s.

MyPyramid symbol looked different as little as one year ago
Based upon a graphic published in the March/April 2005 issue of Nutrition Today, as far back as 2003, Porter Novelli, the public relations and marketing firm hired by the USDA, knew exactly what the new MyPyramid symbol was going to look like. They just were not sure which food categories would dominate.

The March 2004 Naturally Nutrient Rich Symposium held in Washington D.C., which involved Dan Snyder, a Porter Novelli partner, exhibited the graphic that is now the 2005 MyPyramid symbol. What is fascinating is that based on the nutritional experts’ advice at the time, the milk category was much smaller and less prominent than it is now. As the graphic showed, the milk, yogurt, and cheese group was smaller than the meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts group, was the same size as the fats and oils group, and was dwarfed by the vegetable, fruit, and bread/cereal/rice/pasta group.

At this symposium, according to Nutrition Today, Snyder said that he did not want to send conflicting messages to consumers. As the current MyPyramid symbol shows now, "milk" is the second most prominent group behind "whole grains." How did dietary recommendations change so much in one year? Is that not a conflicting message?

Lobbyists and special interest groups play a huge role in nutrition policy
Many critics have used the phrase “it’s like putting the fox in charge of the hen house,” when referring to the USDA’s role in nutrition policy. Intense lobbying from the $500 billion food industry has already questioned the validity of the new food pyramid and dietary guidelines. Seven of the thirteen Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee members have received food industry funding to support their research or have been paid by food companies as consultants. The USDA bases its nutrition policy on their suggestions.

The Wheat Foods Council nominated Janet King Advisory Committee Chair. Connie Weaver, another committee member, conducted paid research for The National Dairy Council. Is it a surprise that wheat and dairy are most prominent in MyPyramid? General Foods is putting the MyPyramid symbol on 100 million of their Big G brand cereal boxes. The Dairy Council has put on the full court-press with their “3-a-Day Campaign.” It is believed that the problems associated with the intake of refined sugars were downplayed due to the intense pressure from the sugar industry.

The USDA should be ashamed of themselves. Even after they were found guilty in U.S. District Court in 2000 for not disclosing the Committee’s special interest affiliations in the 2000 Revised Dietary Guidelines, they still tried to hide the 2005 Committee’s special interests.

USDA itself is a conflict of interest
Two years ago, lawmakers lobbied to move nutrition policy from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Health and Human Services, but to no avail. The USDA gives $15 billion in farming subsidies each year, but does not reflect what the USDA wants Americans to eat to stay healthy. Instead, foreign trade and farm politics dominate the delineation of subsidies. Fruit and vegetable farmers, which combined make-up the largest portion of MyPyramid, receive no subsidies. While corn, soybeans, cotton, rice, wheat, dairy, and sugar receive most of the subsidies.

USDA funds “check off programs,” which are marketing initiatives that encourage consumers to eat more of specific foods and commodities. “Got Milk” and “Beef: it’s what’s for dinner,” are prime examples of check off programs. In 2002, dairy received check off funding totaling $254 million, fluid milk $100 million, beef $86 million, and pork $62 million. Dairy also receives $2 billion annually because of the Milk Income Loss Contract. Is this a conflict of interest?

USDA has not taken into account the citizens who need it most
The My Pyramid symbol is more ambiguous than the last version. One can derive nothing from the symbol itself. There are no icons or text listing what the colored sections mean. You must go to mypyramid.gov to figure out what the symbol means. This alienates many lower income and elderly citizens who do not have a computer, are computer illiterate, or cannot afford Internet access. When asked how a citizen can get the information other than the web, our Agricultural Secretary Mike Johanns said one would need to see a health professional or order it from the government bookstore. A licensed health professional’s rate is minimum $60/hour, and the cost to order printed copies from the bookstore, depending on detail, ranges anywhere from $12-$66.

In a poll done by Opinion Dynamics one week after MyPyramid’s release, only 29% of minorities polled had seen the new symbol as opposed to 49% with household incomes of $75,000 per year or more.

What they call individualization is a mirage
MyPyramid offer’s 12 individualized pyramids based upon only three criteria: age, sex, and physical activity. Surprisingly, all 12 pyramids recommend 3 servings of milk products daily. Is this individualized?

USDA has set unattainable Goals
According to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines and MyPyramid, we should all exercise a minimum of 30 minutes daily. How can we follow this advice when our Agricultural Secretary Mike Johanns cannot? He said at the MyPyramid press conference that he only exercises 20 minutes five days weekly!

In an Opinion Dynamics poll taken one week after MyPyramid’s release, 46% believe that it is equally useful as the old symbol, which was a failure!

Serious omissions in MyPyramid
There is no safe level of trans fats. The Pyramid and Dietary Guidelines do not state that people should avoid trans fats.

My Pyramid and the Dietary Guidelines hardly mention olive oil and fish, two of the healthiest menu options and recognized by other branches of our government as heart-healthy.

There is a poverty of protein. Why does MyPyramid recommend that only about 15% of the diet come from protein when complete amino acids are required for the formation, maintenance, and repair of all bodily tissue and organ systems? It is a biochemical fact that no carbohydrate is essential for human nutrition. Yet, 55-60% of the USDA’s recommendations are carbohydrates (grains, fruits, and vegetables).

The protein category is called “Meat and Beans.” Beans are mostly carbohydrates and do not contain complete proteins. Why was “Meat,” and not meat, poultry, fish, and eggs specifically mentioned.

MyPyramid brilliantly avoids any “eat less” messages. Organizations like the American Pediatrics Association and some of the most prestigious journals in the world can say, “Don’t drink sodas. Don’t drink juice with added sugar.” But our government, cannot?

Conclusion
We, as consumers, should not be surprised, but angry. This was a golden opportunity to seize the moment at a time where our country is fatter and sicker than it has ever been. What have we done? We have let special interests run the show and I predict we may be worse off because of it. I am sick and tired of the USDA and special interests coming into our kitchens and children’s classrooms telling us what to eat.

It is time for the USDA to remove their influence over the food pyramid and dietary guidelines and to transfer the power of nutrition policy to an independent agency. Worldwide scientific and nutrition research should also be compiled and coordinated with the World Health Organization and other international health agencies, especially from countries that boast the greatest longevity and optimum health.

The Director of the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy, Eric Hentges, said that a food chart could not be done in one icon. That's the reason for the twelve pyramids in MyPyramid. I disagree. I can prove that it can be done and done well.

My Circle of Health Food Chart, scaled to an average dinner plate, exhibits exactly what is required to maintain normal weight, and most importantly, optimal health. In addition, the Circle of Health plan encompasses a simple how-to, in which every version of the Dietary Guidelines and Food Pyramid has failed to accomplish.

I gave the USDA the Circle of Health and copious amounts of data when they requested input from health professionals back in 2003. I figured it was a ceremonial plea to alert the public it was seeking their input, but gave it a try anyway. They did not take an ounce of my advice, which I also expected. I am not a special interest. I am only a twenty-year health professional, working in the trenches with thousands of Americans, and see every day how our government’s nutrition policy is not working for us, but against us.

Bonnie Minsky, LDN, MPH, MA, CNS is President and Wellness Director of Nutritional Concepts, Inc., established in 1985. Bonnie counsels individuals, corporations, schools, and has performed hundreds of speaking engagements. Minsky has authored two books, Our Children’s Health and Nutrition in a Nutshell. Bonnie’s website, nutritionalconcepts.com, is widely respected as a credible and cutting edge source for nutrition and public health information.

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