Every food blogger, policy wonk, nutritionist, restaurant critic, farmer, grocer and concerned parent has weighed in on the government’s new graphic representation of dietary guidelines. One end of the spectrum is crying foul—saying the whole thing is food-industry propaganda—and the other end is congratulating the United States Department of Agriculture on its progressive leap forward.
Characteristic of the Obama administration, the truth is that the new campaign is carefully and strategically positioned in the middle. Every stakeholder gets just enough opportunity for buy-ins and just enough leverage for soapbox complaints.
And then there’s the Libertarian view: Why is the goddamn government telling us what to eat? That’s actually a pretty fair question. On the face of it, the time and energy, ie money, devoted to creating food pyramids and the newly unveiled choosemyplate.gov scheme (which ditched the Illuminati-style pyramid in favor of a dumbed-down plate graphic with pie-chart portions of food groups) seems like exactly the kind of thing taxpayers could individually choose to spend on, um, food, for example.
But big agri-business and junk-food corporations have been given free rein for so many decades that a huge portion of the population is food- and nutrition-illiterate. We actually need guidance and the occasional suggestion. Choosing a banana over a corn dog every once in a while is a paradigm-shattering concept sometimes.
From that perspective, a nudge to fruits and vegetables from an agency with authority can’t really be perceived as bad. However, there are several insidious aspects to the five categories of food that the USDA is recommending and to a few of the attendant suggestions. In a grab from restaurant-style parlance, one chunk of the plate is labeled “protein” and represents all meats. That’s handy for organizational purposes, but it doesn’t really convey the amount of protein available in grains and vegetables. As it happens, equating meat with protein has been a long-standing propaganda goal of the meat industry, and it appears the USDA is happy to reinforce the notion with a taxpayer-funded, daddy-knows-best initiative.
Not only is dairy given a special position—a cup to the side of the plate wholesomely representing yogurt or milk—but the new campaign emphasizes choosing fat-free or low-fat milk products. Aside from the human diet’s not requiring dairy in most circumstances—which makes its presence an industry give-away to begin with—low-fat milk happens to have an impressively higher profit margin than whole milk. Dairies can sell the extracted fat and sell watery non-fat milk for the same price, thus doubling their product. So, responsible government or more corporate stoogery? You decide.
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