Follow up on Food Pyramid

April 20th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Last week we discussed the U.S. government’s “food pyramid” as an example of the impossibilities of “honest broker science” in cases characterized by conflict over values and uncertainty in knowledge. Yesterday the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its latest incarnation of its food pyramid.

Media coverage of the pyramid suggests a range of different perspectives on the relative success of the pyramid as a means to provide scientific advice to the public. The new pyramid is actually a number of different pyramids that can be tailored to an individual’s unique circumstances. This would seem to be a move in the direction of “honest brokering” of action alternatives. But not all observers see this as a good thing. Here are some examples of reactions from a Washington Post article:

“”The fact that almost all the information is on the Web is a lost opportunity, because only the very most motivated people will go to the Web and dig into this information more deeply,” said Walter Willett, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.”

“”It’s positive that what they released can be more personalized,” said Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes greater consumption of fruit and vegetables. “And I like the way physical activity is included graphically. But from a negative side, the population most in need doesn’t have access to computers, and from a big point of view they missed the opportunity to make a stronger message. . . . It’s designed to not call any attention to any negative food group. I hate to say it, but what else would we expect from the USDA?””

The last comment reflects the view of some who see the pyramid as a reflection of industry influence. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that, “Marion Nestle, nutrition professor at New York University, took one look at the new pyramid and asked: “Where’s the food? There’s no ‘eat less’ message here,” Nestle said. “There’s nothing about soda or snacks or about how many times you should eat.”” And the Washington Post article included a similar perspective, “”The new dietary guidelines are the best ever,” said Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. “They’re based on the latest science and they provide very strong advice, but it seems like the USDA dodged the difficult political advice once again and didn’t clearly communicate what to eat less of. Given that obesity is the biggest health problem facing the country, that is what is most needed to be communicated.”” Clearly, there is no “honest brokering of science” on this issue, even though by all accounts that I have seen the scientific basis of the pyramid is first rate.

I am no expert on food policy, but I would hypothesize that the differences in view on the efficacy of the food pyramid lie in differences in opinion about the role of the expert in a democracy. In other words, some will see the role of the scientist/expert to empower decision makers to take responsibility for their own choices by providing them with a set of options. Other will see the role to be something more along the lines of telling people what action they should take (i.e., narrowing the scope of choice). And of course such perspectives also reflect equity considerations, such as who wins and who loses among the users of the new pyramid (e.g., this is reflected in various comments on whether the expert target the informed and motivated public or the uniformed or otherwise disadvantaged public?). I’d pose the hypothesis that one’s views on the pyramid’s flexible structure will be closely correlated with one’s views on the role of the scientist/expert as an honest broker or issue advocate.

Clearly the pyramid reflects a compromise of perspectives, and there is no such thing as a pure “honest broker.” But it does seem that the present incarnation of the food pyramid reflects a move more in the direction of honest brokering than the previous version. The most important yet unanswered question from my standpoint is: Is there any evidence that the new incarnation better supports decision making than the past version or possible alternatives? The ultimate test of honest brokering and issue advocacy is the pragmatic test.

[If any of our readers is aware of or conducting research on the last question posed above, drop us a note. Thanks!]

One Response to “Follow up on Food Pyramid”

  1. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Relevant NYT article today on the food pyramid:

    Excerpt: “Jeanne Goldberg, director of the Center on Nutrition at Tufts University, worked on the original pyramid and said similar concerns surfaced then. “The headline was ‘the foxes are guarding the henhouse,’ ” she said. “How can the U.S.D.A. be the lead agency in nutrition education if it’s also the organization responsible for protecting the commodity groups? I think it’s tough.”"