Mainely Tipping Points 12
The 1980 USDA Food Guide
The tipping point for our current national relationship to food begins in earnest in the 1970s. There are many facets to this fifty-year history: massive national changes are never simple. History shows these changes were not made for good scientific reasons. They were made from a bubbling stew that contained, at least, potent, but unsupported beliefs; unchecked political power; the personal advancement of some; and corporatism.
One piece of this much larger history begins when the USDA hires Luise Light, M.S., Ed.D., to produce the 1980 USDA food guide which would replace the “basic four” guide. (The food pyramid guide arrives in1992.) When the USDA call came, Light had just finished her graduate studies and was teaching at New York University. Light’s book WHAT TO EAT: THE TEN THINGS YOU REALLY NEED TO KNOW TO EAT WELL AND BE HEALTHY (2006) documents what she calls the “bizarre” something that occurred during her time at the USDA (17).
The first USDA effort to establish national dietary guidelines came from Wilbur Olin Atwater, an agricultural chemist, in 1902. Atwater introduced the notion that the calorie is a good means to measure the efficiency of a human diet. Atwater calculated which foods produced which amounts of energy, and he stressed eating more proteins, beans, and vegetables and less fat, sugar, and other starchy carbohydrates (www.healthy-eating-politics.com/usda-food-pyramid.html).
In 1917, Caroline Hunt devised the first USDA food guide. Hunt came to the USDA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was director of the home economics program (http://eatdrinkbetter.com/2009/12/07/how-long-have-we-known-what-to-eat/#more-2637). Hunt ignored Atwaters advice to limit fat and sugar intake and emphasized newly discovered vitamins and minerals. She divided foods into five groups: meat and milk, cereals, vegetables and fruit, fats and fatty foods, and sugar and sugary foods (www.healthy-eating-politics.com/usda-food-pyramid.html).
In 1940, the National Academy of Sciences released the first Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA), and the USDA, in post-war 1946, when food is no longer under war-time restrictions, released a new guide which offered seven food groups supporting the RDA requirements. Once past milk, meat, and grains, the categories are somewhat incoherent: milk and milk products; protein products; cereal products; green and yellow vegetables; potatoes and sweet potatoes; citrus, tomato, cabbage, salad greens; and butter and fortified margarine (www.healthy-eating-politics.com/usda-food-pyramid.html).
Other guides, which contained contradictory advice, existed. So in 1956 the USDA revised its guide to the “basic four”: milk, meat, fruits and vegetables, and grain products (www.healthy-eating-politics.com/usda-food-pyramid.html). But, by the 1960s, writes Light, “rising rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes” prompted a “furious debate” among nutritionists about “whether the basic four food groups were more of a marketing tool for food commodity groups than a useful technique for improving eating practices and protecting the public’s health” (13). In the late 1970s, the USDA decided to redo the food guide.
Light devised a plan for the new food guide “based on studies of population diets, research on health problems linked to food and nutrition patterns, and the newest dietary standards from the National Academy of Sciences “(15). She convened two expert groups “representing both sides of the government’s nutrition `fence,’ agricultural scientists who studied nutritional biochemistry and medical scientists who studied diet and chronic disease.” The new guide would, for the first time, “target levels for fat, sugar, sodium, fiber, calories, and trace minerals” (15).
The daily guide Light and her team recommended is as follows, with lower servings for women and less active men: five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables; two to three servings of dairy; five to seven ounces of protein foods (meat, poultry , fish, eggs, nuts, and beans); two to three servings of whole-grain breads, cereals, pasta, or rice; four tablespoons of good fats (olive, flaxseed, expeller cold-pressed vegetable oils); and limited amounts of refined carbohydrates. Fats would provide 30 percent of calories, and sugars, no more than 10 percent of calories (17).
Light sent the new food guide, which was in the form of a pyramid, to the office of the Secretary of Agriculture (a political appointee), and it came back changed. Servings in the whole-grain category were increased from two to three servings to six to eleven servings, and the words “whole grain” were eliminated. Dairy was increased from two to three servings to three to four servings. Protein foods went from five to seven ounces daily to two to three servings. Fats and oils went from four tablespoons to “use moderately.” And sugars went from no more than 10 percent of the diet to “use moderately” (17). The pyramid form was gone.
Light was horrified, furious, and feared, especially, that the whole-grain alteration would increase national risks of obesity and diabetes. Light laments the notion that any product with wheat (white bread, Twinkies, Oreos, bagels) would now be considered equivalent to a whole-grain product with intact fiber and nutrients. She laments the fact that when Congress later set the USDA guide into “legislative `stone,’ “ it became illegal not to serve the expanded number of grain servings—which affected all publicly funded food programs, like the food stamp program and the public school lunch programs. She laments the plight of poor people who would now feel hungry all the time as cheap carbohydrates would not fill them up and would make them fat. And, she laments the loss of credibility and integrity of a USDA tasked with being a source of reliable nutritional information, but which had ignored deliberately “research-based dietary advice” in order to “bolster sales of agricultural products” (17-21).
Thus, Light notes, Americans increased their “consumption of refined grain products from record lows in the 1970s to the six to eleven servings suggested in the new guide.” By the 1980s, Americans were consuming one hundred forty-seven pounds of wheat flour and cereal products, and by 2000, two hundred pounds, for an increase of 25 percent (21). And, presently, two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese (3). Additionally, “we’re continuously massaged by subtle, misleading persuasions to forget the consequences and indulge today” (5).
Food, Light writes, is a big part of what some have called a “third industrial revolution” (4). We are now “eating foods and ingredients unknown to our ancestors and even to our parents and grandparents. Our foods have changed dramatically, but our nutritional requirements still mirror those of our ancient Paleolithic ancestors” (9). Light writes that “in the past fifty years food has been transformed into packaged products designed by industrial engineers for long shelf life, profitability, and repeat purchases.” And, “after sixty years of eating `scientifically,’ we seem to have reached the moment of truth. The great Western experiment in reinvented food has proven itself to be a health disaster” (31).
Additionally, as our environment has changed drastically, we struggle now with serious air, water, and soil pollution. “Pollutants stored in our tissues,” writes Light, “cause damage to our immune and neuroendocrine systems, impairing our health and inhibiting our ability to digest, absorb, and utilize the nutrients we consume” (10). And, “pollutants can raise nutrient requirements leading to nutritional shortfalls that interfere with growth, reproduction, bone strength, muscle tone, and body functions.” This syndrome of “nutritional malaise,” Light assesses, is causing as many as 70 million adults to “suffer from some form of digestive malady…”—which is, in turn, producing more serious diseases, like diabetes, high blood pressure, cancers, osteoporosis, asthma, and arthritis” (10). Worse, “genetic damage from toxic products can be passed on from one ge-neration to the next…” (241).
Light’s ten rules for healthy eating center on not eating polluted, synthetic food, which includes industrially raised animals and eggs; on eating nutrient-dense whole foods; on eating natural fats (butter, olive oil, and nuts) and avoiding synthetic fats (highly processed vegetable oils, like soy, corn, safflower, cottonseed, and canola); and on avoiding all refined and processed foods.
In 1992, eleven years later, the USDA issued a revised food pyramid which endorsed what Light calls “a healthy eating message” that has “never been so explicit again” since it, in turn, was altered along the lines heard in the era of the basic four food groups: all food is good food (246-247).