I loved the ’90s: I loved the pogs, the Beanie Babies, and the Spice Girls. The music, the shows (“Beavis and Butthead,” “VH1: Behind the Music,” etc.) and even the food was legendary. Who remembers those floaty things in Orbitz (long before the boba craze hit the U.S.), Crystal Pepsi, or doing some spring cleaning of your colon with Wow! chips?
But not everything from that time was “da bomb.” If you recall, you had to buy minutes for your phone, smoking sections still existed in most places, everything had to be saved on floppy disks, and oh—this was the era of the food pyramid. That colorful ’90s icon came out in 1992 and managed to make our already burgeoning obesity epidemic even worse.
Yet what was a brazen attack on our health for profit has become a quaint microcosm of what was to come in later decades. What should have been a harmless visual aid reveals a story of manipulation and vested interests by the food industry that is ongoing to this day.
For the later part of the 20th century, obesity rates were clearly on the rise. The U.S. government decided to take action. Unfortunately, the governing force tasked with this mission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, proved to be very susceptible to external pressure. Dr. Luise Light was the original nutritional expert behind the creation of the food pyramid, and she was actually focused on the mission to provide accurate information.
However, agribusiness lobbyists had other concerns. They knew the guidance provided would impact everything from diet plans to food labeling to school lunch programs. Not to mention they would play a huge role in determining what Americans would buy. With potentially billions of dollars being at stake, the lobbyists pressured the USDA hard to make many, many “adjustments” to Light’s model.
For example, you may see that dairy got its own spot on the pyramid, with cheese, milk, and yogurt being necessary for a balanced diet. This was due to strong pressure from the dairy industry.
In his book “Eat to Live,” Joel Fuhrman stated that U.S. taxpayers are forced to contribute $20 billion on subsidies to artificially reduce the price of cattle feed to benefit the dairy, beef, and veal industries, and then have to pay the medical bills for an overweight population.
A sizable portion of the population never consumes dairy items for a multitude of reasons, such as being practicing vegans, having dairy allergies, or those on specific diets, like the Paleolithic diet. Dairy intake is simply not required to survive. The fact that it was a requirement on the pyramid should have been a giveaway that this wasn’t going to be accurate.
Meanwhile, the meat industry has had a very long record of pushing against medical research that tries to curb the consumption of red and processed meat, despite the indisputable link those products have with higher rates of heart disease and cancer. Yet meat featured prominently on the pyramid. So did the processed wheat industry, which made sure flour, pasta, breakfast cereals, and baked goods were heavily represented.
Light wrote about her disgust at the bottom part of the pyramid, which served as the foundation of the entire diet:
Our recommendation of 3-4 daily servings of whole-grain breads and cereals was changed to a whopping 6-11 servings forming the base of the Food Pyramid as a concession to the processed wheat and corn industries.
Moreover, my nutritionist group had placed baked goods made with white flour—including crackers, sweets and other low-nutrient foods laden with sugars and fats—at the peak of the pyramid, recommending that they be eaten sparingly. To our alarm, in the “revised” Food Guide, they were now made part of the pyramid’s base.
Other nations had pyramids that had water and vegetables as a base. Light said the American food pyramid was “sold to the highest bidder,” and had been rewritten over her objections:
For instance, the Agriculture secretary’s office altered wording to emphasize processed foods over fresh and whole foods, to downplay lean meats and low-fat dairy choices because the meat and milk lobbies believe it would hurt sales of full-fat products. It also hugely increased the servings of wheat and other grains to make the wheat growers happy.
Light’s team had baked goods made with white flour, which include foods like southern-style biscuits and sweet rolls, at the top of the pyramid to be eaten sparingly. The food industry lobbyists, however, moved them to the bottom base of the pyramid as part of the grain family. Also, in regards to junk food, any references to “eating less” were removed, as junk food makes up a sizable portion of income for the food industry.
To make room for all the extra servings of grains, dairy, and meat, the pyramid dropped the base of five to nine servings of fresh fruits and vegetables a day down to only two or three servings. It would later go up to five to seven due to the anti-cancer campaign from another government agency.
Finally, the top of the pyramid, fat and sugar, was entirely based on a lie. First of all, your body gets plenty of sugar from carbohydrates and fruit. In reality, although your body doesn’t need sugar, it really doesn’t need added sugar, which is the biggest culprit in obesity. Even Sweden’s 1974 pyramid, which is credited as being the first food pyramid, had protein at the top. Sugar was nowhere to be found.
Worse, next to sugar at the top of the pyramid was fats. This was entirely due to the demonization of fat from the sugar industry, which tried to shift blame for the obesity epidemic from sugar to fat. Hence the obsession with low-fat or fat-free alternatives that were all the rage in the 1990s, disregarding the importance of healthy fats as a consistent and efficient energy source for our bodies. Ironically, once the USDA came out against fat and promoted this fake pyramid, obesity rates skyrocketed.
After relentless criticism from health professionals, the pyramid was tweaked a few times, with a major overhaul in 2005. The 2005 model replaced the building blocks with vertical stripes of different sizes to correspond to the recommended servings. It was an improvement over the ’90s pyramid, especially since it tried to incorporate daily exercise into the mix.
However, the model was called chaotic for good reason. Nutritionists found it complicated and difficult to teach. Although vegetables finally outweighed grains, the model also still retained heavy influence from the meat and dairy industry. It was eventually dropped by the Obama administration.
Michelle Obama, who was a fierce advocate of fighting childhood obesity, pushed for a new model. Out of her task force, she, along with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, unveiled the MyPlate model. This replaced the pyramid image as the government’s primary food group symbol.
The MyPlate approach differed from the food pyramid by focusing on what foods to eat instead of focusing on specific food groups. It uncomplicated the pyramid by giving a visual that a plate should have half fruits and vegetables and the other half grains and lean meats. The program also provided a lot of online tools to help people with their diet plans.
While this has been a significant improvement over the pyramid, there are still influences from the food industry. For example, there is still no distinction between refined and whole grains, nor is there any distinction between unsaturated and saturated fats. One year after this model was introduced, the Harvard School of Public Health released a counter model that eliminated dairy.
Marion Nestle of the Daily Meal Council was blunt on why the USDA keeps dairy: “Dairy farmers are in every state, and every state has two senators.”
Lobbyists aren’t inherently malevolent. Weed lobbying has been influential in advocating for changes in cannabis laws at the federal and state levels, which has contributed to the increasing acceptance and legalization of cannabis for medical and recreational use in several U.S. states. Unfortunately, agribusiness lobbyists do not have a good track record of advocating for policies that benefit the health of the American consumer, and the manipulation of our dietary guidelines extends well beyond what ends up on our plates. Agribusiness lobbyists have played a substantial role in shaping American subsidies and policies, often to the detriment of our health and the environment.
They have worked to obscure nutritional information to confuse consumers, with a particular focus on targeting young people and minority communities.
Frequently, these communities already face shortages in fundamental resources, such as nutritional knowledge and the ability to afford fresh produce as well as access due to ”food deserts.” Unfortunately, this has exacerbated their vulnerability to chronic illnesses. Simply encouraging healthier lifestyles for everyone has the potential to reduce mortality rates from conditions like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease by 50%.
The response to smoking did provide a roadmap on fighting obesity. The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was a global treaty adopted by the 56th World Health Assembly in 2003. It was a watershed moment for international public health because it was the first multilateral binding agreement on a chronic, noncommunicable disease.
The agreement demanded requirements such as a ban on tobacco advertisements, restricting sales to minors, and better labeling. One of the more effective requirements was the limitation of lobbying and providing donations to lawmakers from the tobacco industry. It undeniably had an impact. In 2000, a third of the global population over 15 years old was using tobacco. By 2020, it had fallen to 22% and continues to drop.
However, despite the fact that obesity is a bigger killer than smoking, the food industry has been very forceful in trying to prevent anything like this from happening to their industry.
In fact, the food industry is following the tobacco industry’s former playbook of emphasizing personal responsibility, funding sympathetic scientists, making self-regulatory pledges, denying the addictive nature of their products, and marketing to children. However, the food industry is far more powerful than the tobacco industry, which has been on the decline for years.
Big Food impacts everyone, and includes everything from packaged foods and beverages to restaurant chains. They have invested heavily in influencing government decisions at every level to resist common-sense regulations by financing “shadow” advocacy groups.
Agribusiness lobbyists were able to convince the USDA to fight state pleas to ban the purchase of junk foods with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Leslie Sarasin, president of the Food Marketing Institute, says restricting SNAP purchases to healthy food would be burdensome to the USDA staff, lead to longer lines at the checkout, and be detrimental to food retailers:
If our goal with SNAP is to provide needy Americans a short-term lifeline to allow them to get and keep a job so they earn enough to support their families without government benefits, the unilateral limitation of any specific product is unlikely to help accomplish that goal.
When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to limit portion sizes of sugary soda in 2012, arguing that it cost the city over $4 billion in health costs each year, Big Food was able to finance astroturfed community groups to oppose the plan. One of these organizations, the Center for Consumer Freedom, turned out to be run by a serial astroturfer that operated myriad websites (consumerfreedom.com, obesitymyths.com, physicianscam.com, howmuchfish.com, mercuryfacts.org, etc.). “Parks and Recreation” made fun of the sheer ridiculousness in one of their episodes:
Beyond our health, agribusiness lobbyists have also used their influence to oppose climate change and environmental legislation, even measures aimed at ensuring clean water. Recent research from New York University revealed that major meat and dairy corporations in the United States, along with various agricultural lobbying groups, have invested millions of dollars to undercut climate and environmental legislation. They have lobbied hard to oppose any climate-related initiative as an effort to cast doubt on any connection between animal agriculture and climate change. Over the two decades spanning from 2000 to 2020, U.S. agribusiness, encompassing meat, dairy, and other agricultural companies, contributed $750 million to support national political candidates who oppose climate legislation.
In yet another report, this one by Environment Maryland, agribusiness’ army of lobbyists spent millions lobbying Congress and donating to campaigns that oppose pollution reduction in waterways, which they argued would hurt the farming industry. In 2015, lobbyists for the agriculture and fertilizer industries sued the Environmental Protection Agency to keep them from attempting to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. They lost their appeal to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. (Lucky for us, this happened when conservatives were short one justice on the court since Antonin Scalia had just passed away.)
At the very least, you might assume that agribusiness lobbyists are looking out for the farmers. But the farmers don’t think this is the case. The lobbyists instead represent large conglomerates, not farms.
For instance, small dairy farms have criticized the U.S. Dairy Export Council for its stance against country-of-origin labels and its involvement in trade agreements that result in the oversupply of dairy products in global markets, leading to fluctuations in prices.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association promotes foreign sourcing for cattle to cut costs despite the harm to American ranchers, getting worse quality meat, and the environmental impact of the transportation. Ranchers who raise cattle humanely with sustainable practices fight with their own association on labels to distinguish their practices. Worst of all, these lobbyists draw funding from a slush fund that was originally designed to advocate for farmers and ranchers. Instead, this fund has been used to undermine them, as well as promote unhealthy practices and hinder environmental initiatives that would benefit us all.
Sadly, the agribusiness lobbyists of the food industry have a strong ally in this new right-wing Supreme Court, which has clearly demonstrated their shared hostility to regulations and the environment. That’s something else I miss from the ’90s era: a more balanced high court that didn’t allow unlimited donations from bad actors into our political process to cause us obvious harm. I’d love to go back in time and get reality back—even if it meant having to live through the awful boy band craze again.