For nearly two decades, the “food pyramid” represented the official guidelines for nutrition. Then, in 2011, the notorious image was replaced by the “MyPlate” icon. The new icon can now be seen on food packaging and is even taught to children in school. This isn’t the first time the government has changed its approach to marketing nutrition. Starting nearly 100 years ago, government-sponsored nutrition advice has been propagated to the masses. Here are some of the nutrition campaigns from history. Looking at them should serve as a good reminder as to why we should take all nutrition guidelines with a grain of (mineral) salt!
The United States Department of Agriculture was founded by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 but didn’t start publishing nutritional guidelines until 1894. This pamphlet was one of the department’s earlier works. Its release year, 1912, also happens to be the year that vitamins were first discovered, thus changing the way we thought about nutrition.
These posters are good examples of how government interest can influence nutritional guidelines. WWI was going on and these nutrition propaganda posters served as a way to encourage citizens to give up their meat and wheat for cheaper foods so the troops could eat. As part of the campaign, people were encouraged to follow “Wheatless Wednesdays” and “Meatless Mondays” (funny how the second one is still around).
It is hard to imagine that a meal of bread, milk and cookies was considered “healthy by the government. However, you’ve got to keep in mind that the 1910s and 1920s were industrial times. Most people were working in factories. The idea was to get kids bulked up on calories so they wouldn’t wither to death.
Note that one of the agencies behind this poster is the Office of Home Economics. Their mission was to help housewives overcome the daily problems they had at home (like affording food). Throughout the existence of this office, they promoted simplicity – even at the expense of nutrition.
Along with posters encouraging housewives to take up Victory Gardens and canning, the USDA also publishing food recommendations during WWII. The idea was to keep the public healthy despite food shortages. Keep in mind that vitamin synthesis was new technology (some vitamins weren’t even discovered yet) and the government probably delighted in putting vitamins into products like donuts.
During WWII, the government also established the first ever food groups. They were called the “Basic 7” and, yes, they included butter! People were encouraged to eat butter or other fats with every meal. There were no serving-size recommendations for the Basic 7. These food groups served as a precedent for the Food Pyramid and MyPlate campaigns we know today. While butter may not be considered a food group anymore, the basic idea of food groups hasn’t changed much.
In 1950, the Office of Home Economics was still hard at work helping housewives. They continued to promote simple meals and we can thank them for making meat-potato-vegetable the standard American dinner. Any meal with multiple ingredients or complex preparation was shunned as inefficient. In retrospect, it is pretty ridiculous that they labeled a cake as a “nutritious” “dairy product”!
In 1956, the Basic 7 was replaced by the Basic 4. This goes along with the message from the Office of Home Economics to keep things as simple as possible. The basic 4 remained the standard for 36 years until it was replaced by the food pyramid in 1992.
The Food Pyramid was introduced in 1992. It did a great job of visually representing the USDA’s suggested food groups and serving suggestions. The unique aspect of the food pyramid is that it put fats and sugars at the top (i.e. use sparingly). This is a far cry from the original Basic 7 which suggested butter with every meal!
“Got Milk?” is one of the most well-known advertising campaigns the US. According to the Got Milk? website (which is obviously biased), 90% of the populace is aware of the campaign. Even if the numbers are inflated, it can’t be denied how far-reaching this campaign was in the 90s. It isn’t hard to build a massive marketing campaign when you’ve got the government backing you though. Got Milk? was made for the California Milk Processor Board, which is administered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. They funded the ads by forcing dairy farmers (including traditional dairy farmers) to pay the costs!
The MyPyramid icon was introduced in 2005. The man climbing the steps is supposed to represent exercise, along with nutrition, as part of a healthy lifestyle. Consumers were encouraged to visit the MyPyramid website where they could get personalized nutrition information. MyPyramid never really caught on, but it does represent a first-time shift towards personalization of government nutrition guidelines.
The most recent update to the government nutritional guidelines propaganda is MyPlate. The icon suggests that the diet should consist of 30% grains, 30% vegetables, 20% fruits, and 20% protein along with a side of dairy.
First Lady Michelle Obama said of the new guidelines, “Parents don’t have the time to measure out exactly three ounces of chicken or to look up how much rice or broccoli is in a serving. … But we do have time to take a look at our kids’ plates. … And as long as they’re eating proper portions, as long as half of their meal is fruits and vegetables alongside their lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy, then we’re good. It’s as simple as that.
Of course, we know that nutrition isn’t as simple as making sure everything is proportional on a plate. Processed white grains are not the same as whole grains. Protein from meats are not the same as those from legumes. But these complexities of nutrition don’t fit nicely into a small icon. Maybe if we stopped trying to simplify nutrition into a concise icon, we’d actually be able to hear some wise advice tailored for our individual lifestyles.
What’s in the future for government health posters?
I predict that the posters of the future are going to be interactive apps personalized to our lifestyles.
What’s your prediction?