This week, the Department of Agriculture unveiled a radical redesign of a beloved staple of American culinary life: the Food Pyramid. I feel sad.
The government's attempts to modify American diets have a fascinating history. I have fond memories of the old food pyramid, which was modified many times over the past years but maintained its basic configuration. Even as a child, I found it pretty easy to understand.
At the bottom sat the firm foundation: Grains. Six to eleven servings daily! That's a lot of Wonder Bread. Next tier up were two groups of things that were less fun to eat, Fruits and Vegetables. The idea of eating vegetables every day as a child seemed absolutely bizarre to me, particularly the three to five servings the pyramid suggested. That would mean eating vegetables for breakfast, for god's sake. I never heard of that. Above that, two more categories, Dairy and Meat. I liked milk, so that was fine. The interesting thing about the meat group was that it included meat, fish and beans. I often wondered what kinds of influence lowly beans had to exert to get elevated up there next to meat.
Finally, appropriately set at the very pinnacle of the pyramid, was the only thing that made eating any fun at all: Sweets. "Use sparingly," we were advised, subtly and appropriately casting us as "users."
While the principles of the old pyramid were graspable, it was sometimes hard to reconcile those principles with my actual diet. Where, for instance, would I fit in one of the foods I most enjoyed using, Oreos? The outside was cakey and crunchy, sort of like bread, so I guess they were partly Grain. The creamy white inside seemed like milk, so they must be Dairy as well. Obviously they were sweet, but not that much: I mean, I never actually put sugar on Oreos. Finally, I had never knowingly consumed oil or fat, both of which sounded disgusting. So I would count Oreos as two thirds Grain, one-third Diary, with a little bit Sweet thrown in. A serving was always hard to calculate, so I would simply estimate it was reasonably as possible: about half of one of the three rows in a full bag, or about eight Oreos.
The new pyramid has none of the bracing clarity of the old one. As a seasoned graphic designer, I find myself with the dismaying ability to look beyond any new design and see the interminable series of meetings that was its genesis. The brief the Department of Agriculture gave its consultant, Porter Novelli, must have been daunting.
First, it retained the beloved pyramid form, but eliminated its implied hierarchy to displace Sweets from its position as King of All Food. So now we have something that can only be described as a pie chart made from only one slice of (inverted) pie. The usefully vague "serving" unit has been replaced with specific measures like cups and ounces; this means that relative amounts can no longer be compared, rendering the barely visible differences between the various groups meaningless without a key. In the fancier version of the pyramid, the key is represented by an uneasy combination of drawings and photographs of food items that appear to be carelessly piled at the structure's base.
Finally, someone has dictated that exercise must be represented as part of the equation. So one side of the pyramid has been turned into a staircase, mounted enthusiastically by one of those odd, neutered sprites that you see everywhere in public sector graphics: neither young nor old, male nor female, raceless and faceless, representing everyone and no one. (I understand why they never have breasts or penises. But why do they never have hands or feet?)
I can clearly imagine this last transformative addition to the pyramid. There must have been one person in all those meetings who kept asking the same question: but how can we integrate exercise into the Pyramid? Finally: here, give me the pencil; what if you just did it like this? Can you just clean this up? Porter Novelli, who supposedly charged 2.5 million bucks for all their work on this project, which includes an interactive element to render twelve customized versions (hence, "MyPyramid") and a pretty zippy website, earned every penny.
Graphic designers are often asked to reduce complicated ideas to simple diagrams. Sometimes it's possible, but often it's not. In this case, what we're left with is something that is well-intentioned but dysfunctional. The new food pyramid is what a friend of mine would call a cat's breakfast, except it has vegetables in it. And everyone knows that not even a cat would eat vegetables for breakfast.
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