A History of The Food Pyramid & Corporate Influence

I recently wrote this paper for my Liberation Theology class. I felt that it was relevant enough to post here.

The U.S. dietary guidelines are something that can be seen multiple times on a daily basis. They are posted in restaurants, magazines, discussed on TV shows, and used by the majority of America’s dieticians. The dietary guidelines (referred to as the “food pyramid” in this paper) are a source of almost daily discussion in my career as an Olympic and Weightlifting coach. Based on the connections made between food lobbyists, private interests, and their connection to the food pyramid, the food pyramid can be seen as problematic on multiple levels. This paper will attempt to dissect the history of the food pyramid, how private interests have influenced its recommendations, and the possible repercussions of following its recommendations.

The origins of the food pyramid can be traced to the beginning of the 20th Century. As compounds like vitamins and minerals were being discovered, foods were separated into groups based on their vitamin and mineral content. The earliest recommendations were rooted in agricultural chemistry, a burgeoning science in the late 1800’s. (1. Harvard) This is where calories were first emphasized as a legitimate way to efficiently measure the varying amounts of energy that were present in different types of food, and a special emphasis was put on foods that were cheap yet high in nutritional density. As these dietary recommendations were being established, it became apparent that there were special interests at work behind various government dietary recommendations. One example is “Eat the Carp!” (2) from the early 1900’s. This campaign was put into motion after European carp were introduced to American waters and began to pose a threat to native species. Another example is the “Signs of Good Nutrition” flyer from 1931. (3) This campaign was in response to the prevalence of rickets in young children. The problem was solved by artificially fortifying milk with Vitamin D and giving it to schoolchildren. Along with lobbying, this is partly the reason why the dairy industry was able to get such a strong foothold in public schools that persists to this day.

Besides alterations being made for rationings involved with the 1st and 2ndWorld War, the dietary recommendations remained more or less the same until the late 1960’s. For the first time in history, the role of dietary recommendations was reversed. Rather than recommending food as a way to keep people alive, the recommendations now reflected a worry that too much food was being consumed; certain foods were advised to be avoided to prevent obesity. This serves as a prime example of the “loss of innocence referred in the Zerzan text. (4. Zerzan) By adopting the practices of agriculture, humans lost their innocence with the world they were connected to. Rather than being a part of the ecosystem, agriculture allowed them to rise above the ecosystem and exert dominion over the rest of the world. This rise of obesity can be viewed as a direct repercussion of this dominance: A disease of affluence.

This disease of affluence did not go unnoticed by the government and private agricultural interests, whose power was increased tenfold after the mini-agricultural revolution that followed WWII. (5. Baker) This new agricultural revolution was brought about by a combination of factors, including a surplus of chemicals used for pesticide left over from WWII, an unusually optimal climate period for agriculture to thrive, and a high sense of optimism from the public regarding agriculture. When the Second World War finished, America found itself with an immense surplus of ammonia nitrate, a key ingredient in the manufacturing of explosives. It was later discovered that ammonia nitrate excelled as a nitrogen source for plants. This is the birth of the chemical fertilizer industry, a “product of the government’s effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes”. (6. Pollan) According the Indian food activist Vandana Shiva’s speeches, “We’re still eating the leftovers of World War II.”

It was these leftovers that allowed commodity crops to be planted, and allowed for a great yield per acre of crops. As the yields increased, so did the availability of food for American citizens. The increased availability of grains allowed for a greater range of processed products to be made available to customers, even to the point that hunger was no longer a concern for most. This brings us back to the topic of the diseases of affluence. As climate conditions allowed agriculture to reach heights it had never before achieved, obesity, heart disease, and cholesterol issues began to skyrocket.

Ancel Keys was not the only scientist to notice this, and after years of study, published his hypothesis saturated fat & cholesterol, and their relationship to heart disease and atherosclerosis. (7. Hoffman) In his Infamous “Seven Countries Study”, Keys found correlative properties between seven nations that had high intake of meat and animal fat products, and high incidents of heart disease. Keys also greatly researched the effects of feeding rabbits high amounts of cholesterol, and noticing the atherosclerosis that the rabbits experienced. By combining his experience of the Seven Countries Study, and the research of the lipid hypothesis, Keys began to promote what became known as a “Mediterranean diet”, a diet that focused on low amounts of fat, protein and cholesterol, with a higher amount of grain and vegetable. The U.S. Government was quick to jump on the low-fat, high-carb bandwagon, making it an official part of their guidelines, despite seeming to criticize it less than a decade earlier. (8. Ottoboni)

Although the lipid hypothesis has become nutritional dogma since it was published, it still possesses a laundry list of criticisms. For example, rabbits are herbivores, and do not require cholesterol like humans do, therefore it is unsurprising that the rabbits experienced atherosclerosis. Cholesterol has been shown time and time again to not have a negative impact on a human’s serum cholesterol levels. In fact, the opposite is true. (9. Dawber) Another criticism of Keys was his choice of the seven nations in his Seven Nations Study. Keys was accused of “cherry-picking” evidence, because even though seven nations with high meat and fat intake were linked to heart disease, Keys omitted the fact that many nations who had low meat and fat consumption also were linked to heart disease, suggesting that there was in fact another culprit for heart disease and atherosclerosis.

More and more in the recent decades, research has shown that in fact, cholesterol, clean animal proteins and fat have been shown to improve serum cholesterol levels, as well as the presence of adipose tissue, when combined with lowered amounts of nutrient-void processed grain products. This can be attributed to the glycemic load of all carbohydrates: even whole grain bread possesses a higher glycemic load than table sugar. (11. Gnolls) This scientific research is diametrically opposed to the interests of agricultural corporations, whose largest sales derive from packaged products that take years to expire on the shelf.

Nowhere is the presence of lobbying more apparent on the food pyramid than the dairy food group. Forgetting the fact that a large percentage of Americans (and the world) are lactose intolerant, the milk on grocery store shelves has become so processed that it barely resembles the original milk product. Combine that with the fact that most milk available is low-fat or fat-free, it has turned into a vitamin-fortified white substance that is pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. To get a clear example of the grasp that lobbyists have over the food pyramid guidelines, one simply has to look at the situation in the early 1990’s. The first draft of the 90’s guidelines included the text to “consume less red meat and less dairy”. The beef and dairy corporations naturally responded poorly to this, and after lobbying, the advice was to “consume 2-3 servings” of meat and dairy. (12. Nestle)

How can we as individuals and community members respond to this clearly compromised set of nutritional guidelines? As discussed in class, “why does a heavily processed box of cheerios cost less than a quality loaf of bread or a head of lettuce?” Perhaps most importantly, where is God in all of this, how does God play a part in this nutritional mask that is being pulled over our eyes? Theological reflection and pastoral planning will give us our answer.

While as a nation, we many not all be economically poor, as the Boffs are referring to, we certainly are a nation that is nutritionally poor and destitute. In their text, the Boffs refer “aid” as something that should be avoided. “Aid remains a strategy for helping the poor, but treating them as (collective) objects of charity, not as subjects of their own liberation.” (13. Boff) Rather than the government trying to educate the masses from the top down on the proper way to eat, I feel that nutritional guidelines should be established on a community level, based on the ecological surroundings and the availability of food based on the season. I think the Beacon Food Forest we discussed in class is a prime example of what a community can do when faced with deficiencies of quality nutrition. It is not simply a lack of quality food in a store; it is a lack of stores themselves in some areas, creating urban food deserts.

It is important to remember, however, that simply putting fruit and vegetable stores in a deprived urban area will not magically turn all of its community members into health-minded beings overnight. When one or two generations have subsisted on heat-and-serve or pre-packaged meals, it will take empowerment through education in order to understand how to shop for fresh produce and meat, what to look for and what to avoid, and how to best prepare these items. Partnering an empowering food preparation education system with something like the Beacon food forest can empower nutritionally poor communities to not only have access to quality food, but also to know what to do with it. Community gardens and community ecosystems can be the answer to urban food deserts, to sum it up Norman Wirzba says it perfectly: “Eating, both literally and figuratively, has roots in the soil. Gardens are the practical sites in terms of which people begin to see, smell, hear, touch, and taste the breadth and depth of human membership and responsibility.” (14. Wirzba) By doing something as simple as maintaining a garden for subsistence, humans can reconnect with the ecosystem on a personal level, in a way that puts humans back in a role of the ecosystem, rather than treating the ecosystem as a commodity.

Expanding on the subject of roles in the ecosystem, it is nigh impossible to discuss nutrition and theology without discussing the future of meat as a source of food on a conscious consumer’s table. A growing movement of vegetarians feels that animal farming in general should be stopped. “While the authors do not advocate for identical measures, all seek to at least reduce if not outright end animal suffering and/or usage because of its patent immorality. They also believe continuing to raise animals for meat is morally unjustifiable because of its monopoly on resources that could feed the world’s hungry.” (15. Fields) While I do not agree that eating meat is morally unjustifiable, I do agree that the way in which CAFO’s operate is detestable in every sense. However, there are other options besides banning all meat consumption. For example, there is a growing movement of local pastured farms where animals serve as a part of the ecosystem of the farm. Rather than feeding cows corn and antibiotics with their waste being transported to manure lagoons, cows on pastured farms are fed grass and vegetable scraps, with their healthier waste being used as fertilizer for the very vegetables they eat, forming a beautiful ecosystem. This can not only heal humans who are nutritionally poor, it can also heal the land that the farm dwells on.

Humans are caring for the animals, and the animals in turn care for the humans with their lives. There is a caveat to this, however. I feel that something is lost when humans no longer see or kill the animal that they are eating, and I think many fellow hunters would agree with me. There is a deeper level of appreciation for the meat you are consuming when it comes from an animal you have killed yourself. Perhaps a system could be locally implemented, where in order to purchase an entire animal’s worth of meat for your family, you had to personally take part in the kill. This would not only increase the appreciation on a personal level for the meat being consumed, it would help cull the amount of meat consumption on a whole, as many individuals would be unable to complete this task.


1. Harvard: Food Pyramids and Plates: What Should You Really Eat?

2. Eat The Carp! 1911– Department of Commerce. Bureau of Fisheries. (1913 – 1939)

3. Signs of Good Nutrition, 1931 Department of the Interior. Office of Education. Service Division. (07/01/1930 – 1935)

4. Zerzan, John. Elements of Refusal p. 81: Left Bank Books, Seattle, WA 1988.


6. Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals p. 41. New York: Penguin, 2006.

7. Meet Monsieur Cholesterol: William Hoffman University of Minnesota Update, Winter 1979

8. The Food Guide Pyramid: Will the defects be corrected?Ottoboni, Alice & Fred, Ph.D. 2004

9. Eggs, Serum Cholesterol, and Coronary Heart Disease. Dawber, Thomas R. MD MPH

10. The Truth About Ancel Keys. Minger, Denise 2011

11. Mechanisms of Sugar Addiction: Or, Why You’re Addicted To Bread: Stanton, J. 2010

12. Food lobbies, the food pyramid, and U.S. nutrition policy. Nestle, M. 1993

13. Boff, Leonardo, and Clodovis Boff. Introducing Liberation Theology. New York: Orbis Books, 1987.

14. Wirzba, Norman.