Food Science Meets Food Politics: A History of USDA’s Nutritional Guidelines

plate nutritional

If your profession has anything to do with food and nutrition, it might surprise you to learn there was a time when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued nutritional guidance to the public – and it wasn’t controversial at all.

The first federal funding for nutrition research was appropriated in 1894, when Congress gave USDA $10,000 for food investigations. There weren’t many nutrition studies being done at the time, and most of them were being conducted by Wilbur O. Atwater, a professor of chemistry at Wesleyan University and USDA’s first chief of nutrition.

Atwater, considered by many to be the father of modern nutrition research, advocated using science to develop dietary guidance and improve the health and well-being of Americans. He published USDA’s first nutrition guidance in 1894, in the agency’s Farmers’ Bulletin. In the 1902 Farmers’ Bulletin, he emphasized variety, proportionality, and moderation in healthy eating, principles that endure in today’s nutrition guidance. “ … for the great majority of people in good health,” Atwater wrote, “the ordinary food materials … make a fitting diet, and the main question is how to use them in the kinds and proportions fitted to the actual needs of the body.” In 1904, Atwater published Principles of Nutrition and Nutritive Value of Food, in which he advocated an efficient and affordable diet that measured calories, focused on nutrient-rich foods, and limited fat, sugar, and starch.

The emerging field of nutrition science informed the 1916 creation, by nutritionist Caroline Hunt, of USDA’s first food guide, Food for Young Children. The follow-up guide for adults, How to Select Food, likewise divided foods into five categories: milk and meat; cereals; vegetables and fruit; fats and fatty foods; and sugars and sugary foods. These five food groups remained the backbone of USDA’s nutrition guidance throughout the 1920s.

Basic 7 1943 graphic

The Basic Seven, 1943. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration

The economic constraints of the Great Depression became a major concern for food consumers, and in 1933, Hazel Stiebeling, a USDA food economist, developed food plans for Americans at four different cost levels, outlined in terms of 12 major food groups to purchase and prepare over a week’s time. Her publication, Diets at Four Levels of Nutritive Content and Cost, was the first to factor affordability into federal nutrition guidance.

In 1940, as U.S. involvement in World War II became imminent, the National Academy of Sciences established a Committee on Food and Nutrition to advise the government about nutrition problems that might affect national defense. The committee established daily nutrition standards for members of the armed forces and for the general population, and, at the National Nutrition Conference for Defense convened by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, presented its Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for calorie intake and nine essential nutrients: protein, iron, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin.

These recommendations led to the development of the National Wartime Food Guide, published by USDA in 1943 and featuring what became known as the Basic Seven food groups, designated to maintain nutritional standards under wartime rationing. The Basic Seven was the first USDA nutrition guideline to be depicted in simple graphic form; it was a wheel divided into seven wedges, one for each category of food in a healthy diet. After the war, the Basic Seven endured, with few changes in the new National Food Guide, which contained this advice: “In time of emergency, you need to eat less of the scarce foods, more of the plentiful. FOOD IS NEEDED TO FEED THE HUNGRY – DON’T WASTE IT.”

Basic Four 1956 graphic

1956’s Basic Four. Credit: USDA image

These categories were consolidated, in 1956, into the Basic Four: milk, meats, fruits and vegetables, and grain. These categories would remain virtually unchanged for many years, and it would be decades before USDA issued another graphic depiction of its nutrition guidelines.

“Eat More” Becomes “Eat Less”

The latter 20th century began a period in which USDA was pushed and pulled by an inherent conflict between two of its missions: to promote U.S. agricultural products and to provide nutrition advice.

In her book Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, first published in 2002, Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, argues that the USDA’s tradition of nutrition guidance can be roughly divided into two eras: the “Eat More” era of the early- to mid-20th century, and the “Eat Less” era that began to gain momentum in the 1970s, when evidence emerged that the typical American diet, high in sugar, salt, fat, and cholesterol, might be linked to the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases.

As early as 1917, with Hunt’s How to Select Food, Atwater’s prescription to limit the intake of certain foods, such as fats and sugars, was largely ignored in USDA’s public nutrition advice – an omission driven by agricultural interest groups who didn’t want the government telling people to eat less of what they produced. This wasn’t a problem, said Nestle – until it was. “At first, when the USDA was giving food advice and encouraging people to eat more of American agricultural products,” she said, “there was no problem at all. They could have a group for fat. They could have a group for sugar. And they could do all of that because Americans were generally thin and healthy. The big issue that the USDA wanted to get across, in a word, was variety. They wanted people to eat a greater variety of foods.”

A Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by then-Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., heard testimony off and on through the mid-1970s, and in 1977 produced the first comprehensive statement by any federal entity about the risk factors in the American diet. With guidance from the American Heart Association, the committee recommended reductions in the consumption of fats, cholesterol, and sugar, along with increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and poultry and fish.

Food Wheel 1984 graphic

The 1984 Food Wheel graphic. Credit: American Red Cross/USDA image

The 1970s were a tipping point after which providing nutrition advice to Americans became increasingly complicated for USDA, not only because of the grievances generated by groups who now felt their products – products such as beef, pork, eggs, sugar, and processed foods – were being denigrated, but because of the number of players seeking input into the process. In the private sector, groups such as the American Medical Association began to argue that USDA shouldn’t put itself in the position of specifying amounts and proportions of foods that should be included in Americans’ diets, as it inevitably put the agency in the position of discouraging production of certain food products – a direct conflict of interest for the agency.

It was nevertheless the opinion of many in the public and private spheres that Americans needed nutrition information that was more detailed and more consistent. USDA gained a federal partner after the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) successfully lobbied for a seat at the table, and in 1980, the two agencies published their first consensus document, “Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” which advised people to “eat a variety of foods; maintain ideal weight; avoid too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol; eat foods with adequate starch and fiber; avoid too much sugar; avoid too much sodium; if you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.”

USDA and HHS have updated “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” every five years since, with advice and input from a committee of nutrition experts.

The early years of the “Eat Less” era identified by Nestle were messier and more contentious than the previous half-century of USDA nutrition advice; for evidence, one need only take a look at the 1984 Food Wheel, a graphic produced by USDA and the American Red Cross to reflect the advice contained within the “Dietary Guidelines.” Compared to graphics presented before it and since, the wheel seems a cluttered, indecipherable hash, a 5-pound bag containing 10 pounds of advice. It was promptly forgotten by the American public, but in less than a decade, it would be replaced by an icon that a surprising number still remember today.

The Great Pyramid of Food

Food Pyramid 1992 graphic

The 1992 Food Pyramid. Credit: USDA image

The Food Guide Pyramid that became USDA’s icon of nutrition advice in 1992 was produced meticulously – so meticulously, in fact, that the grievances, accusations, and counterclaims that surrounded it could, and do, provide enough material for several book chapters written by Nestle and others. Research was done to determine not only its substance – which foods, and in what proportions, should be illustrated – but its style: Would the new graphic be another wheel? A bowl? A plate? Focus-group surveys found the pyramid the most helpful graphic, as its broad base clearly showed which foods should be eaten in the greatest amounts daily.

A first version of the pyramid, the Eating Right Pyramid, was abruptly withdrawn by Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan in 1991 because, he said, it wasn’t as easily understood by children, the elderly, or minorities, but reporting in the New York Times and elsewhere suggested the secretary had bowed to pressure from commodity groups who didn’t like to see their products ranked lower than others in the pyramid’s hierarchy.

The 1992 Food Guide Pyramid is different from its predecessor in many subtle ways – including its name, which doesn’t suggest there’s a “right” way to eat – but the substance is still rooted in research and the advice of experts who were led by Jeanne Goldberg, Ph.D., who was then and remains a professor of nutrition at Tufts University.

MyPyramid 2005 graphic

MyPyramid, 2005. Credit: USDA image

As memorable as the Food Guide Pyramid was, Goldberg said, it provided evidence that there’s no silver bullet for providing nutrition advice, especially by committee. If you look closely at the Pyramid, you’ll see its sections sprinkled with tiny white triangles and yellow circles, representing the amount of sugars and fats in each group. These were included at the insistence of people focused on health and prevention who, Goldberg said, “felt quite strongly that you had to tell people where the fat and sugar were. You can interpret for yourself how effective that might have been.”

Another issue with the Pyramid, Goldberg said, arose from the unresolvable conflict between thoroughness and simplicity. Some focus group members would look at the graphic symbols and take them literally: “People would say: ‘I can’t eat a whole chicken or a whole loaf of bread. If I eat a whole loaf of bread, I’ll get so fat.’” Among the advisory group were scientists who wanted the graphic to reflect as many details as possible from the “Dietary Guidelines,” Goldberg said, “but at the other extreme was the market research guy, who said: ‘You want a symbol you can understand as if it were a billboard, and if you were driving down the highway at 60 miles an hour, you could get the message.”

myplate 2011 graphic

MyPlate is the current graphic representing today’s USDA dietary guidelines. Credit USDA image

MyPlate: A Teaching Tool

An updated version of the Pyramid, MyPyramid, was released in 2005, with all hierarchical images of food removed and replaced by colored vertical wedges. Designed to be a personalized interactive online tool, MyPyramid individualized recommendations based on gender, age, and activity level, and laid the groundwork for more detailed explorations of people’s diet quality and physical activity, all of which could be done on the USDA’s MyPyramid website. The concept didn’t catch on. In Goldberg’s opinion, the new graphic was simply too abstract.

Both Goldberg and Nestle were involved in the initial advisory stages of producing the USDA’s current graphic, MyPlate, released in 2011. Like the Food Pyramid before it, the image that resulted – a simple plate divided into four quadrants of different sizes to represent servings of fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein, with a smaller serving of dairy on the side – has its strengths and weaknesses.

“It’s simple,” said Goldberg. “It has high recognition. And part of that recognition is due to the fact it came out when [then-first lady] Michelle Obama had declared she was going to take child nutrition on as one of her major causes. And that really was a tremendous boost for the credibility of the graphic.”

Michelle Obama MyPlate

Then-first lady Michelle Obama unveils the MyPlate graphic, the new food icon meant to serve as a reminder to help consumers make healthier food choices, on June 2, 2011. Then-Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack accompanied the first lady at the launch. Credit: USDA photo by Robert Nichols

Nestle is skeptical that as much research – or any research, for that matter – informed the production of MyPlate as did the Pyramid. The labeling of one of the four groups as “protein” – a nutrient, Nestle said, not a food – troubles her. “It’s not fact based,” she said. “The milk group has protein – a lot of protein, actually. All foods have protein. So to call a group ‘protein’ because you don’t want to call it meat, fish, or nuts – it doesn’t make any sense.”

After leading the development of the 1992 Food Guide Pyramid, Goldberg seems more able to accept such flaws in a simple graphic as inevitable. “It isn’t really the graphic that does the work,” she said. “It’s what is done in teaching what the graphic means that’s potentially effective. And that’s a long chain. I think the idea that it’s possible to create a graphic representation of how Americans should eat is a good one. It’s hard to argue against that. What we in the nutrition community do with it is really where the rubber hits the road. I think most recently, there has been better funding for that, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

This article was originally published in the 2017 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.

One Response to “Food Science Meets Food Politics: A History of USDA’s Nutritional Guidelines”

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