Whose input goes into the USDA food pyramid?

four versions of the U.S.D.A. food pyramid from 1943 to present
USDA food pyramid (1943, 1992, 2005, 2011)

A question I’ve had for years is: Whose input goes into the USDA food pyramid/guide? In conversation, a few people have told me that meat, dairy and wheat farmer organizations hire big-money lobbyists to heavily influence these recommendations. As something of a cynic, that’s always seemed quite plausible to me; but I’ve always retained some doubt. I mean, would a federal agency really compromise the quality of its dietary advice for decades in order to placate some farmers? Well, it kinda looks like the answer is yes.

I started with the Wikipedia article on the history of USDA nutrition guides. In the footnotes was a link to an article by Louise Light, the key USDA nutritionist behind the iconic 1992 food pyramid. In A Fatally Flawed Food GuideLight (2004) says that she and her colleagues designed a food guide allotting the largest daily dietary portions to fruits and vegetables. She claims that the secretary of the USDA, under pressure from agricultural lobbyists and the congressional representatives those lobbyists fund, increased grain recommendations and decreased fruit and vegetable recommendations. She also claims she grouped highly processed grains with sweets, but leadership grouped those foods in with whole grains.

According to Light, the food pyramid will never reflect current nutrition science so long as the USDA is in charge of it. She asserts, “nutrition for the government is primarily a marketing tool to fuel growth in consumer food expenditures and demand for major food commodities: meat, dairy, eggs, wheat.” Her recommendation is that another government agency with weaker ties to the food industry take over the federal government’s dietary guidelines (which affect everything from the food served at public schools to the food served in prisons). Robert Lustig (MD) (the guy who gave the Sugar: the Bitter Truth presentation at UCSF that went viral on YouTube) agrees, telling Time that the Department of Health & Human Services should be solely responsible for the guidelines. That makes sense to me.

In 2005, the USDA released a revamped–and, to many, confusing–food pyramid. A 2006 paper in the Journal of Nutrition (J. Nutr. May 2006 vol. 136 no. 5 1341-1346) compared the way the USDA developed its guidelines to how Americans actually eat. The USDA’s guidelines are based on the best possible scenario: meat is trimmed of all fat, all grains are whole, all veggies fresh, nothing is deep fat fried, nothing has added sugar or sodium, etc. Of course, that’s not how people actually eat. When I prepare a ribeye, I might cut a couple chunks of fat off, but most of that flavorful marbling is staying put. So a serving of protein for me (and the average American) is more calorie-dense than what the USDA means when it talks about a serving. Not surprisingly, Gao X et al. (2006) found that if the average American were to follow the USDA’s 2005 recommendations they would in deed consume most of the nutrition the USDA recommended but might come up deficient in vitamin E and potassium and would likely consume around 200 more calories than intended.

The USDA’s latest iteration of their food guide, MyPlate (See above gif), is more closely aligned with current science (50% consists of fruits and vegetables). However, its detractors still say it is flawed. Harvard’s School of Public Health released its own plate design, citing the influence of “intense lobbying efforts from a variety of food industries” on the USDA’s recommendations as one of the reasons why Harvard chose to produce its own recommendations.

HSPH Healthy Eating Plate
Copyright © 2011, Harvard University. For more information about The Healthy Eating Plate, please see The Nutrition Source, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, www.thenutritionsource.org, and Harvard Health Publications, www.health.harvard.edu.

Everyday Health collected criticisms of MyPlate from a bunch of dietitians. Their complaints include the following. “There are no visuals to help figure out how to add fats and oils to your plate,” (Carolyn O’Neil, MS, RD). “[You] do not need dairy at every meal and having the dairy serving on the diagram makes it seem like you should have it at every meal,” (Lisa De Fazio, MS, RD). “It contradicts its recommendation, water over sugary drinks, with dairy glass symbol at each ‘plate’,” (Ashley Koff, RD). “MyPlate doesn’t give any indication of appropriate food choice,” (Autumn Hoverter, MS, RD, CD). “It does not show how big our plate should be,” (Carolyn Dunn, PhD). “Maybe there should be a caption that reads, ‘Not pictured: Water, physical activity, room for dessert, good fats, knife, spoon,'” (Amber Pankonin, MS, RD, CSP, LMNT). “The focus on dairy,” (Janel Ovrut Funk, MS, RD, LDN). “…Protein is not food, it’s a nutrient,” (Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN). “The information is geared toward the average overweight American. Sports-active people need heartier meals,” (Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD). The most common complaint was that MyPlate is overly simplistic and could lead people to treat fried chicken and raw nuts, or fresh tomatoes and fried green tomatoes, etc,  as equals (along with numerous other nutrition pitfalls).

Having typed over 800 words, I realize I haven’t answered the question that started me down this rabbit hole. So, in answer to the original question, it appears that nutritionists, USDA staff, consultants and lobbyists & their congressional hand puppets all provided input for the USDA’s nutritional guidelines since at least the 1980s.

A brief note: Yes, the USDA’s food guide has been flawed for decades; but, as Gao X et al. (2006) point out in their paper, most of us would be better off following it than if we just continued eating the way we’re eating. Two more notes: (1) The USDA’s vision statement in their 2014-2018 Strategic Plan is “To expand economic opportunity through innovation, helping rural America to thrive; to promote agriculture production sustainability that better nourishes Americans while also helping feed others throughout the world; and to preserve and conserve our Nation’s natural resources through restored forests, improved watersheds, and healthy private working lands.” They’re primary focus is not on making sure Americans are thin and healthy; it’s making sure our farmers have money in their pockets and plenty of land to plant their crops and graze their cattle. So it’s not particularly realistic to expect this agency to give you the real real on what you should eat. (2) I’ve worked for the government. I’ve been involved in the kind of projects that result in these sorts of documents. And what I can tell you is that something like this–something decided by committee, over the course of years, over the course of numerous leadership changes–is almost always going to be crap. A panel of experts sounds like a great idea, but what it really ends up involving is a panel of oversized egos, and the end result is a compromised, crap product that tries to stroke everyone’s dick/clit at the same time. So, yes, the food guidelines aren’t perfect, but they’re better than could be hoped for given how they come about.

Here’s the list of contributors to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines as listed in the document’s acknowledgements. Text in brackets is mine. (I’d like to point out here that it took several hours on the web to find this list; and I’d already written all of the above when I finally came across this. ChooseMyPlate.gov is brimming with links to flashy infographics, FAQs, checklists, print-at-home coloring books, etc, but good luck finding the actual document the entire thing is based on. I would love to doggedly dig up each one of these folks’ CVs and scour them for industry ties; but I’m just too fucking tired at this point, and what I’ve read has plenty convinced me that the USDA’s guidelines are a vast improvement on what most of us eat but not nearly as healthy or helpful as they could be.)

Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Members

  • Barbara Millen, DrPH, RD; Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc; Steven Abrams, MD; Lucile Adams-Campbell, PhD; Cheryl Anderson, PhD, MPH; J. Thomas Brenna, PhD; Wayne Campbell, PhD; Steven Clinton, MD, PhD; Gary Foster, PhD (May–August 2013); Frank Hu, MD, PhD, MPH; Miriam Nelson, PhD; Marian Neuhouser, PhD, RD; Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, PhD; Anna Maria Siega-Riz, PhD; Mary Story, PhD, RD.
  • Consultants:
    • Timothy S. Griffin, Ph.D. [Worked for University of Maine, then for the USDA, now a professor at Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy of Tufts University, calls himself an agronomist]
    • Michael W. Hamm, Ph.D. [C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University, couldn’t find CV]
    • Michael G. Perri, Ph.D., ABPP. [Dean, College of Public Health and Health Professions; Robert G. Frank Professor of Clinical and Health Psychology; UF Research Foundation Professor of Clinical and Health Psychology — in other words, he’s a self-important muckety-muck at University of Florida; however, he also does a lot of research on obesity and its comorbidities which is presumably how he ended up a consultant here]

Policy Officials

  • HHS:
    • Karen B. DeSalvo, MD, MPH, MSc [Studied at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health–the same school that rejected MyPlate. According to HealthIT.gov, as of January 2016 she is the Acting Assistant Secretary for Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Before joining the feds, she was Health Commissioner for the City of New Orleans which is the town she received more of her eduction in as well.]
    • Howard K. Koh, MD, MPH [Was Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from 2009-2014. Currently is the Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and The Harvard Kennedy School (Jesus. Do you have to know the Skull & Bones secret hand shake to work for the USDA or something? Before that he was the Health Department Commissioner is Massachusetts. He studied medicine and health administration at Yale and Boston.]
    • Don Wright, MD, MPH [Currently he is a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health and the Director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at HHS. Prior to HHS, he was Director of the Office of Occupational Medicine for the U.S. Department of Labor. He studied medicine in Texas, Wisconsin and at Baylor.]
  • USDA:
    • Kevin W. Colcannon [Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services (FNS) at the USDA since 2009. Prior to that, he ran the health departments of Maine, Oregon, and Iowa. He studied in Nova Scotia, Main and Connecticut. He has graduate degrees in social work and an honorary doctorate of some sort.]
    • Angela Tagtow, MS, RD, LD [Executive Director for the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) since 2014. Prior to working for the USDA, she was a consultant. Before that, she was with the Iowa Department of Public Health. She’s worked for the University of Missouri and the University of Minnesota. She studied at various Iowa universities.]
    • Jackie Haven, MS, RD [Deputy Director & Acting Executive Director for the USDA Center for Nutrition, Policy & Promotion (CNPP). She has worked for the USDA since 1990 and, as best as I can tell, has no professional work experience of any note prior to that. She studied at SUNY.]

Policy Document Writing Staff

  • Richard Olson, MD, MPH [Works in the Division of Prevention Science in the Office of Disease Prevention & Health Promotion at HHS. The only thing I could find on this guy was a 2015 letter addressed to him (as the “Designated Federal Official” [how very whatever-the-opposite-of-prestigious-is]) from Joy Dubost of the National Restaurant Association urging him to drop a line from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s Advisory Report that suggests eating fast food might lead to weight gain (Yes. A PhD wrote a 9 page letter with 17 footnotes arguing there’s no reason to believe you’ll gain weight eating fast food.). The letter also tries to get a bunch of dubious studies promoted by the fast food industry into the Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL). On a side note: I read the executive summary for the 2015 advisory report, and it was interesting. They recommend eating more fish and less red meat but they say zilch about poultry–like it doesn’t even exist.]
  • Kellie Casavale, PhD, RD; Colette Rihane, MS, RD; Eve Essery Stoody, PhD; Patricia Britten, PhD; Jill Reedy, PhD, MPH, RD; Elizabeth Rahavi, RD; Janet de Jesus, MS, RD; Katrina Piercy, PhD, RD; Amber Mosher, MPH, RD; Stephenie Fu; Jessica Larson, MS, RD; Anne Brown Rodgers (Editor).

Policy Document Reviewers/Technical Assistance

[insert a bunch of vague categories with no names]