May 27/New York/New York Times-- The Obama administration is about to ditch the food pyramid, that symbol of healthy eating for the last two decades. In its place, officials are dishing up a simple, plate-shaped symbol, sliced into wedges for the basic food groups and half-filled with fruits and vegetables.

The circular plate, which will be unveiled Thursday, is meant to give consumers a fast, easily grasped reminder of the basics of a healthy diet. It consists of four colored sections, for fruits, vegetables, grains and protein, according to several people who have been briefed on the change. Beside the plate is a smaller circle for dairy, suggesting a glass of low-fat milk or perhaps a yogurt cup.

Few nutritionists will mourn the passing of the pyramid, which, while instantly recognized by millions of American school kids, parents and consumers, was derided by nutritionists as too confusing and deeply flawed because it did not distinguish clearly between healthy foods, like whole grains and fish, and less healthy choices, like white bread and bacon. A version of the pyramid currently appearing on cereal boxes, frozen dinners and other foods has been so streamlined and stripped of information that many people have no idea what it represents.

“It’s going to be hard not to do better than the current pyramid, which basically conveys no useful information,” said Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. Willett said he had not seen the new logo.

The new symbol was designed to underscore a central mantra of the federal government’s healthy eating push: make half your plate fruits and vegetables. It is expected to be a crucial element of the administration’s crusade against obesity, which is being led by the first lady, Michelle Obama.

“We need to get consumers’ attention,” said Robert C. Post, deputy director of the Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. He would not discuss details of the icon in advance of the official unveiling. However, he said it was meant to be a “visual cue” that would prompt “consumers to say, ‘I need to be a little more concerned about what I choose to build a healthy day’s diet.’”

Some who have seen the logo compared it with a pie chart, though dessert is hardly the association that the administration would like to conjure up. Others likened it to a pizza cut into slices (equally unpalatable for officials). One person said it called to mind a painting by the artist Mark Rothko, who was known for canvases with blocks of color. Those who had seen it would speak only on the condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized by the administration to discuss it.

Dr. David Kessler, a former commissioner of the FDA, who said he had heard descriptions of the new plate, suggested that if the symbol succeeded in getting people to eat significantly more fruits and vegetables, that alone would be an achievement.

“The reality is that very few of us eat like what has been suggested” in government guidelines for healthy eating, Kessler said. “There’s a world of difference between what’s being served and what’s on that plate.”

He called the plate a major improvement over the pyramid. “It conveys the message simply in a way that we all can understand,” he said.

The plate symbol is meant to help educate consumers about the government’s latest dietary guidelines, which were released in January.

Post said the USDA had spent about $2 million to develop and promote the logo, including conducting research and focus groups and creating a website. Some of that money will also be used for the first year of a campaign to publicize the image. He said the agency would use the plate to get across several basic nutritional messages, including urging consumers to eat smaller portions, switch to low-fat or fat-free milk and drink water instead of sugary drinks.

The food pyramid has a long and tangled history. Its original version showed a hierarchy of foods, with those that made up the largest portions of a recommended diet, like grains, fruit and vegetables, closest to the wide base. Foods that were to be eaten in smaller quantities, like dairy and meat, were closer to the pyramid’s tapering top.

However, the pyramid’s original release was held back over complaints from the meat and dairy industry that their products were being stigmatized. It was released with minor changes in 1992.

A revised pyramid was released in 2005. Called MyPyramid, it turned the old hierarchy on its side, with vertical brightly colored strips standing in for the different food groups. It also showed a stick figure running up the side to emphasize the need for exercise.

However, the new pyramid was widely viewed as hard to understand. The Obama administration began talking about getting rid of it as early as last summer. At that time, a group of public health experts, nutritionists, food industry representatives and design professionals were invited to a meeting in Washington, where they were asked to discuss possible alternative symbols. One option was a plate.

When several participants at that meeting said it would be better to create an improved version of the already familiar pyramid, an administration official rejected that idea, telling the group, “We can’t go back,” according to one person who attended the meeting. The person, who requested anonymity because the deliberations were intended to be confidential, said it was clear that the “marching orders were obviously to come up with something new.”

That “something new” will be plated up on Thursday.


From the May 31, 2011, Prepared Foods' Daily News.